Aspen Valley, Book 2
by Hannah Hooton
eBook ISBN: 1291348212
Print ISBN: 978-1291348217
Frankie’s crush on Rhys would be much simpler if they weren’t both after the same coveted ride on the Grand National favourite, and Rhys won’t give up without a fight.
He’ll make her question not only her loyalties and identity, but also what games he’s playing with her heart?
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Through bleary eyes, Frankie looked at a stain at the base of the toilet. She clung to the rim, two fingers held in a trembling V. They were slick with saliva. She dry-heaved, squeezing her eyes shut as the bile reached only half-way up her throat. Her reflexive gag dragged it up further. Then the overpowering need to swallow pushed it back down again. The sound of voices beyond the toilet wall had her holding her breath but they soon faded and she could resume her task. She directed her fingers into her mouth again, pushing further, touching the soft sensitive skin at the back of her throat. Again, she wretched, this time more effectively and she drove her fingers deeper. The heaves rolled through her body.
Satisfied, at last, that her body had no more to offer, she slumped against the cubicle wall. Blindly reaching out, her hand slapped down on the flusher and she rocked back onto her feet. She let herself out and trudged over to the basins. She gargled then splashed her face. The water was cool on her hot sweaty skin and she closed her eyes in restoration. Looking back up at her reflection in the mirror though, she winced. Her blonde hair was coming loose from her hairband and fell lank over her sludge green eyes. Her cheeks were a blotchy pallid. Frankie let her head fall back and groaned. Never again would she let herself walk past Moulin Raj Indian Restaurant during a three day fast. Ever. A thumping on the door saved her from further admonishment.
‘Frankie? You in there?’ a male voice yelled from beyond.
‘I’ll be out in a minute,’ she called back.
She pulled her hair free and flicked it upside down to give it some volume. She carefully arranged it around her face to obscure the pale rings around her eyes.
Tom Moxley, jockey’s valet and Frankie’s flatmate, was waiting outside in the narrow passage alongside Fontwell’s weighing room. He held up a set of green and white silks.
‘Will you be joining us for the two-ten?’
‘Sorry,’ she said with a weak smile. ‘I had to shed a bit extra.’
He shook his head and looked at her pityingly.
‘Why do you put yourself through this hell?’
She shrugged her shoulders and avoided his eyes.
‘Diamante’s got minimum weight.’
‘Has he got any chance of winning?’
Frankie shrugged again.
‘He was about forty-to-one on the exchanges this morning and you know their prices are always bigger. And my amateur’s claim takes five pounds extra off his back.’
‘Will that be enough? Jesus, Frankie. Look at yourself, you look like shit.’
‘Thanks.’ She took the silks from Tom and walked on. Tom followed close on her heels.
‘Sorry, but it’s true. Look at what you’re doing. You’re torturing yourself just to be an also-ran.’
Frankie stopped and looked back defensively.
‘Hey, I won just the other week on a horse they said had no chance.’
‘Out of how many others?’
She gave him a sour look.
‘I love what I do, okay? And sometimes, if you love something or someone, you have to make some sacrifices. Mine was food.’
Tom didn’t argue. She knew that given the chance he’d much rather be in her shoes. Instead he was a size twelve and a half and eight inches taller than she.
‘Maybe you won’t have to do it so much next week onwards.’
‘Let’s hope. Things are bound to change in some ways.’
‘Yeah. Now come on, out of my way. Sir Bradford still needs his boots polished.’
Frankie snorted and stepped aside.
‘Go on, shoeshine boy. I intend to land him on his arse in half an hour so you might have some breeches to get the stains out of too.’
Tactics. That’s what the game was all about, more so when your starting price was an abandoned fifty-to-one. Frankie swallowed her impatience. That would all be changing soon.
She gave her mount an irritable slap on his neck with her whip and tried to engineer some enthusiasm with a couple of ineffective kicks. Diamante lurched into a jog and, bumping shoulders with one of his fourteen rivals, approached the start.
‘You gonna sit midfield?’ a fellow unfancied jockey asked beside her.
‘Don’t think I have much choice,’ Frankie replied with a wry smile. ‘Either that or at the rear.’
‘Speaking of which, look at Bradford’s there. He rides so short, it’s a wonder he doesn’t have more falls.’
Frankie looked towards where he was nodding. In front of them, the line of jostling horses was dominated by the presence of Rhys Bradford—boots polished to a mirror shine—his rear tilted arrogantly high above his saddle.
‘So tempting to give it a kick,’ the jockey said with a resigned shake of his head.
Frankie pulled her goggles down and collected her reins.
‘I’d like to give him an arse-kicking in other ways, although I don’t see that happening on this plodder. A bath runs quicker than he does.’
Rhys Bradford swivelled in his irons, catching them both looking at him. His eyes were hidden by the gloss of his goggles reflecting the late autumnal sunshine, but by his sly smile Frankie could imagine the dangerous twinkle in them.
‘Admiring the view?’ His luxuriant tone was lofty.
‘On the contrary, we were just saying how it ruined the view,’ she replied.
‘Best get used to it. You know it’s all you’ll be seeing for the next two and a half miles.’
‘And you should know not to be so cocksure. Elsie Dee looks over the top to me. She looks like she’s going to burn out before we’ve gone one circuit.’
As if to prove her point, Rhys’s mount bounded forward in an explosion of nerves. Rhys barely moved in the saddle. The mare chafed at the bit yet he held the reins like they were spun silk.
‘Sweetheart, you couldn’t pack water to fight the fires I start.’ His smile broadened, sculpted as a yacht’s hull. Taunting.
Frankie wasn’t quick enough to think up an equally insulting reply before Elsie Dee bolted forward again. The two rows of runners gathered momentum as the starter climbed his rostrum.
‘See you on the other side,’ her neighbour said, pulling down his goggles.
Frankie nodded and fixed her gum guard in place. A flurry of nerves and adrenalin trembled down her spine. She rose in her stirrups as Diamante, sensing her nerves, broke into a crab-like canter.
Thoughts of Rhys Bradford and his eye-catching rear end vanished as the charge towards the first began. Vaguely aware of the shouts from fellow jockeys and the hectic scrimmaging for position, Frankie guided Diamante towards the better ground, steering clear of the inside rail. The first of nine hurdles was quickly upon them. She dug her knees into her saddle. Diamante scrambled over. Up front, Rhys’s mount, Elsie Dee, fought for her head. The grey veered erratically off her line as they cavalry-charged past the grandstand and into the first left-handed turn. Rhys’s arse was no longer so high as he moved his centre of gravity backwards.
Watching the battle ahead, Frankie grudgingly acknowledged Rhys’s horsemanship as he skilfully brought his horse back in the field and settled it behind three others.
The field ran wide into the back straight, heading for the overhanging trees on the outside to avoid the heavy ground.
Tactics. Her earlier thought came back to her. Pushing Diamante forward and up Rhys’s outside, Frankie angled for an inner line. A smug smile tugged at her lips as Diamante’s pace didn’t falter. The ground was no heavier on the inside than it was on the outside, yet she was stealing a good few lengths on her rivals.
‘What the hell are you playing at?’
Frankie’s smile disappeared as Rhys’s angry shout cut through her concentration. She realised her tactic was taking him with her.
‘What?’ she yelled back.
‘Move the fuck over!’
Rhys’s horse shook her head, eager to cover the clear path ahead of her.
‘No. The ground’s just as good here.’
‘I need cover! The others have all gone stand-side!’
Frankie clutched a handful of mane as their horses clashed shoulders and Diamante stumbled.
‘That’s not my problem! Go around me!’ Keeping a wary eye on the fast approaching hurdle, she glared stubbornly at Rhys.
With a sneer in her direction, Rhys pushed down in his stirrups, struggling to ease the favourite back. Frankie looked ahead, annoyed at his interference and focussed on finding a stride. Out of the corner of her eye, she could still see Elsie Dee shaking her head, her mouth agape. The flicker of Diamante’s left ear told her he was watching the battle too.
‘Concentrate on your own race,’ she muttered, tapping him on the neck with her whip.
Two strides out, Elsie Dee cannon-balled forward. Both horses took off in disjointed harmony, clashing against each other in mid-air. Rhys’s knee dug into her leg and his elbow sent a sharp jab of pain through her breast. Gasping, she clung to Diamante’s neck and lost a rein. Diamante pecked on landing and without his rider to balance him, disappeared muzzle first into the turf. Minus a neck in front of her to save her, Frankie was catapulted by Diamante’s backend out of the saddle. Curling up into a protective ball she hit the ground and rolled.
The grass was cool and moist against her cheek, tickling her ear as she lay there, waiting for her lungs to refill with air, listening to the thunder of Diamante’s hooves disappear into the distance. For a moment her spirits were dragged south by the thought of the days of punishment she’d put her body through for this race only for it to be over within a minute. On the bright side, said body was not throbbing with pain anywhere.
‘Fuck’s sake!’ an angry and decidedly close voice snapped.
Frankie uncurled. Beside her, Rhys was slowly getting to his feet, his horse nowhere in sight.
‘God,’ she murmured beneath her breath, ‘I didn’t really mean it when I said I was going to land him on his arse.’
His shoulders shook with anger. He pulled his goggles down around his neck, revealing dark flashing eyes, and unclipped his helmet. Watching him pull it off and throw it on the ground, Frankie wasn’t sure whether he was angry at her for their fall or just angry in general. Falls weren’t exactly a rarity in this game after all.
‘What the hell were you thinking?’ he demanded.
Okay, he was angry at her. Looking up at the rage on his face, the high dirtied cheek bones, the damp dark curls still clinging to his forehead and over his collar, Frankie wondered what life had in store for her next week. If Rhys let her live that long, of course. Her eyes travelled down his athletic figure, so undeniably…well, put it this way: the Injured Jockeys Fund would make a packet if they put him on the cover of their calendar.
‘I was riding my race. I can’t help it if you can’t control your horse.’ Gingerly she picked herself up off the ground and tried to brush the grass stains off her breeches. Where his elbow had caught her in the chest seemed to be her only injury and had it been anywhere else, she would have tried to rub the pain away. But here she was not about to show him how much it hurt.
‘Damn stupid thing to do,’ Rhys muttered. ‘Everyone goes stand-side when the ground’s like this! You should be done for careless riding.’
On the other side of the running rail, Frankie watched the ambulance and doctor’s car pull up.
‘Rubbish. I told you Elsie Dee was over the top,’ she said, bending down to pick up her whip. She pointed to the paramedics teetering by the rail, unsure whether or not to approach Rhys. ‘There’s our ride.’
With a last glare Rhys, snatching up his helmet, followed her across the course and ducked under the rail. He shrugged off the paramedics’ concerns.
‘There’s nothing bloody wrong with me. Just take me back to the weighing room. And I’m not riding in the same car as her.’
‘Suit yourself,’ Frankie said, accepting a paramedic’s assistance into the back of the ambulance. ‘I’ll see you bright and early on Monday.’
Rhys stared at her, his expression further fraught now with confusion.
Stopping the paramedic from closing the ambulance door, Frankie grinned.
‘Oh, didn’t Jack tell you? I start work as Aspen Valley’s new amateur jockey on Monday.’
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