The Prize

 

Book four: extract 
Dominic Blackwell was a phenomenon. Blessed with aristocratic good looks and a talent for magically coaxing a clear round out of the most temperamental and difficult horses, he was the rockstar of the showjumping circuit. His fans utterly adored him. Girls had posters of him on their bedroom walls and in his hometown of Kentucky, he often got a standing ovation when he entered the arena.
“They wouldn’t be so mad about the big jerk if they actually knew him,” his head girl, Louise, muttered under her breath. She was waiting anxiously in the wings of the Kentucky Horse Park stadium, holding the reins of Dominic Blackwell’s big grey stallion, Maximillion, looking out at the crowd of more than ten thousand in the grandstand. Any moment now Dominic was due to ride his crucial final speed round on Maxi. The only problem was, he was nowhere to be seen.
A sudden roar rose up from the crowd in the stadium and the voice of announcer Jilly Jones came over the loudspeaker.
“An unfortunate four faults for Penny Simpson on Delphine! And now our last rider in this final speed round; Dominic Blackwell on Revel’s Maximillion.”
They were calling him into the ring! Louise’s eyes scanned the warm-up area, her heart racing. Where was Dominic? She’d sent Frannie the junior groom off to find him and now Frannie had disappeared too! Now Louise was stuck here, holding on to the enormous grey Holsteiner. Any minute now they would be disqualifying her boss for failing to turn up and…
“Louise!”
It was Dominic at last. He was striding towards her over the soft sawdust of the warm-up arena, a dark scowl on his face, with Frannie scurrying along in his wake looking flushed with anxiety.
“Why aren’t you onboard Maxi warming him up?” he snarled.
“What?” Louise was horrified. Dominic had given her specific c orders that on no account was she allowed to ride Maxi, however, she knew that contradicting her boss wasn’t an option.
“I’m sorry, Dominic,” she said and swallowed her pride.
“Use your common sense,” Dominic Blackwell snarled at his head groom. “I’m going to have to take him into the ring cold now.”
He snatched the reins out of her hand and glared at Frannie who was standing by nervously. “Well, come on, girl! Leg me up!”
Frannie gave a grunt as she lifted the man who was almost twice her size into the saddle and he jabbed her in the face with his knee. Without an apology or backwards glance, Dominic Blackwell wheeled the grey stallion about and headed into the ring. The two grooms watched as their boss entered the arena to thunderous applause. A moment ago Dominic had a face like thunder but as soon as he was in front of the crowds he was the smiling, cheerful Dominic Blackwell that fans knew and adored. He gave a friendly wave to the grandstand as he did a lap around the perimeter.
“And here he is,” Jilly Jones trilled, “Local Kentucky boy and a former pupil of Blainford Academy, Dominic Blackwell. You may have noticed his red jacket; that denotes his status as a member of the United States international showjumping team. Dominic is only twenty-eight years of age but he has already won gold at the last Olympics and the horse he is riding today looks set to compete at the next games in Rome. Many are calling this horse the best in his stable, the ten-year old stallion Revel’s Maximillion!”
In the wings of the stadium, Louise felt sick as she watched her boss ride towards the first fence. The fences in this Grand Prix arena were the full height of a metre sixty and even a horse with the class and grace of Maxi required a warm-up to get over jumps of that height.
Maxi made a plucky attempt at the first fence but he took down the top rail with his hind legs. The crowd let out an audible cry of dismay. Louise kept her eyes glued on Dominic’s expression. His smile had slipped a bit but he still had his game face on. He came into the second fence and rode it perfectly, but yet again Maxi dragged a hind leg and another rail went down. Dominic’s smile was replaced by a grimace. He turned the grey towards the next fence – a very wide red and green striped oxer – and rode at it for all he was worth. Maxi cleared this one with a grunt of effort and before they had even landed Dominic was looking to the next fence. In three quick strides they were at the blue and white upright. It was also set at the maximum height of a metre sixty but Maxi flew it with air to spare. The big grey was in the groove now and he took the wide, wide spread of the water jump with ease, popped the double with no trouble, put in a brilliant leap over the Swedish oxer and came in on a perfect stride to the triple. The last two fences gave him no problems either and he was home through the flags on a time of one minute and twenty-three seconds.
“It’s a good time,” Jilly Jones told the crowds, “but with those early eight faults it doesn’t matter. Dominic Blackwell and Revel’s Maximillion slip all the way down the leaderboard to ninth place and out of contention for the considerable prize money and the trophy here at Kentucky.”
Waiting in the wings, Louise steeled herself for the worst. In the three months that she had been working as head girl for Dominic Blackwell she had never seen her boss lose. The expression on his face was fearful as he rode out of the arena, his eyes black with fury.
Frannie reached out a hand to take Maxi’s reins, expecting Dominic to slow down, but he trotted straight at her and she had to leap aside to let Maxi past! Both girls cast a glance at each other and then began to run after the big Holsteiner.
When they had reached the sanctuary of the stable block, Dominic performed a flying dismount and threw the reins at a puffed, exhausted Frannie. He was still bristling with uncontrollable, violent anger, but he managed to resist taking it out on his horse. Instead, he stormed off in a huff and, out of sight of the other riders and the crowds, he began to thrash at the ground with his riding crop. In a blind rage he rained down blow after blow until the whip broke in his hand, then Dominic dropped to his knees, a spent force exhausted by his own fury.
His two grooms knew better than to try and comfort him. “Let’s get out of here…” Louise told Frannie.
Taking Maxi’s reins, she turned the grey stallion to head for the stables when Dominic rose up off his knees and turned to her.
“Head girl!” he barked, “Come here!”
Louise handed Frannie back the reins and took a reluctant step towards her employer. “Yes, Dominic?”
“Why didn’t you warm the horse up like I told you to?” Dominic asked through gritted teeth.
Louise didn’t know what to say. Dominic had specifically ordered her not to warm up Maxi. He had told her to wait for him! But her boss seemed to have conveniently forgotten this fact. “You told me to wait for you,” she said nervously.
“No I didn’t.” Dominic corrected her.
“But Dominic…” Louise began to argue but her employer shot her down with a cold stare.
“Since you have so much trouble understanding my instructions, I want you to listen very carefully,” Dominic said, “because I am going to tell you exactly what I want you to do.”
Louise nodded, “Yes, sir.”
“I want you to go back to the horse truck, pack your bags and leave.”
Louise looked puzzled. “What? You’re joking, right?”
“Blackwell doesn’t joke!” Dominic replied. “Get your stuff together and go! As of this moment, you no longer work for me. I don’t need some half-witted incompetent as my head girl.”
Louise was horrified.
“Now get out of my sight!” Dominic roared. “You’re fired.”
He turned to his junior groom. “Oh and Frannie? You can go too.”
Frannie stood there for a moment in disbelief. “Me? But why?”
“Because,” Dominic said through gritted teeth, “I was in the middle of a very important conversation with one of my owners when you interrupted me!”
“But you would have missed your ride if I hadn’t come to get you!” Frannie blurted out.
“Talking back counts as insubordination in my stables!” Dominic snapped. “You are double-fired!”
As the realisation dawned that her boss was serious, Frannie promptly burst into tears and followed Louise who was already stomping off to the horse truck. Dominic Blackwell watched their departure with a smug sense of satisfaction. After a disappointing performance in the arena it had at least cheered him up to rage at his staff. It was of slight concern that he’d fired both girls at once. Normally Dominic liked to keep at least one groom in his good books but his temper had been taking its toll lately. He’d fired six grooms in the past six months and these two raised the total to eight.
Dominic Blackwell frowned. He should have held his temper until Frannie had finished her work and then fired her. Now he would be forced to untack Maxi himself.
Some riders enjoyed being around their horses; schooling and training – but Dominic Blackwell was not one of them. He lived purely for the thrill of the show ring and the roar of the adoring crowd. The behind-the-scenes stuff was what grooms were for. Or, he thought, that was what they had been for before he got rid of them all.
The problem was, Dominic had developed a bit of a reputation on the circuit and good staff were becoming harder and harder for him to find.
Well, big deal. Dominic huffed as he unsaddled Maxi and loaded his own kit into the truck. Grooms were a dime a dozen. There was bound to be a good, keen stablehand out there who’d be thrilled to work for the famous Dominic Blackwell – a professional head girl who could meet his exacting and high standards without falling apart. The perfect groom was out there. He just had to find her.

Georgie Parker stood up her stirrups and looked directly between the pair of ears in front of her, fixing her gaze on the hedge. It was hardly a big fence, not by Blainford Academy standards, and Georgie didn’t even bother to slow Belladonna down as she came at it. She let the mare gallop, only taking a last-minute check on the reins when she was close enough to see a stride and then sitting deep in the saddle and driving the mare on with her legs. The mare’s dark bay ears pricked forward at the hedge and then Georgie felt the horse lift up beneath her. There was that brilliant moment of suspension when they were sailing in mid-air, and then they were landing again on the other side and galloping for home.
The grounds of the school were in sight and ahead of them was the start of the bridle path that led to the school grounds. This was the route the students usually took to the stables, but instead Georgie veered sharply to the right, urging Belle to stay in a gallop as she rode the mare in a straight line towards the stable block over the open grazing fields of the Academy.
“It’s OK,” she told the mare as she leaned down low over her neck, “we’re going off-road. This is a shortcut.”
Belle’s gallop stretched out, her strides devouring the green pasture. Georgie perched up in her stirrups, her weight in her heels to keep balance, her eyes still trained directly between the mare’s ears. Ahead of her she could see the fence that ran around the perimeter of the stables. Like most of the fences in Lexington Kentucky it was an elegant post and plank fence, with a five-bar wooden gate at the entrance near the stables. It would be easy enough for Georgie to pull Belle up and get off and open the gate – but where was the fun in that?
As they neared the gate, Belle snorted and hung back. She knew the difference between a jump and a school gate and she wasn’t sure about hurdling the obstacle in front of her. But Georgie put her legs on firmly and urged the mare with her voice and Belle surged forward, putting in one-two-three neat strides before soaring the five bar gate as if it were no more than a cavaletti.
They arced over the gate, landing neatly on the grass on the other side, and by the time they had reached the verge of the concrete forecourt Georgie had pulled the mare up to a walk and was dismounting.
“Good girl!” Georgie gave the mare a slappy pat on the neck. She had run her stirrups up and was leading the mare towards the stalls when she caught sight of the boy in prefect uniform rounding the corner of the stable block.
“Uh-oh,” Georgie groaned as she recognised the arrogant lope and russet hair of Burghley’s head prefect, Conrad Miller.
Georgie could tell by the smirk on Conrad’s face that he’d seen her take the shortcut over the gate. “Hey, Parker!” His voice had the officious tone of a parking warden. “Students aren’t allowed to jump school fences; it’s against Blainford rules.”
Georgie felt a sudden sting of anger. Ever since she’d arrived at the Academy Conrad had taken a perverse joy in picking on her. Last term things had come to a head when Georgie’s boyfriend Riley had held a mallet to Conrad’s throat at the school polo tournament, publicly telling him to back off and leave Georgie alone.
For the rest of the term Conrad had heeded Riley’s warning, but clearly he had now decided that the truce was about to come to an end.
“You’ve got fatigues, Parker!” Conrad said.
Georgie gave the prefect a withering look. “You’re a real numnah, Conrad.”
“Watch your attitude, Parker – or you’ll be on double fatigues.” Conrad shot back.
Georgie groaned. There was no point in arguing with Conrad. Besides, it would take more than fatigues to dent her spirits. Tomorrow was the first day of the new term at Blainford and Georgie was back with a vengeance. Last term she had been dropped from Tara Kelly’s cross-country class and had to play polo instead. But now her dreams of eventing glory were back on track – she had regained her coveted place in the class for the last term of the year. And while she still had numnahs like Conrad to deal with – and even worse, his spoilt princess of a girlfriend, Kennedy Kirkwood, trying to take her down – she didn’t care.
The past few months riding polo ponies had made her fearless. Her riding had improved and her bond with Belle was stronger than ever. She trusted the mare completely – and more importantly, Belle trusted Georgie. They would be unstoppable on the cross country course. Which was just as well because apparently this term Tara Kelly had a real test in store for them.
Georgie had heard the murmurings around the school ever since she had returned from her holidays. The final term exam would wind up eliminating more than one member of the cross-country class. By the time the year was over, only a handful of the Academy’s elite young riders from around the world would remain – and Georgie was determined that she would be one of them.