Copyright © Hannah Hooton, 2012
The right of Hannah Hooton to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the author. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable for criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.
AT LONG ODDS
When Ginny Kennedy returns home to Newmarket to revive the family's racing stable, she has just one thing on her mind: winning the coveted Dewhurst Stakes at the end of the season.
Not only is she faced with the challenges of making her way in a man's world, but she must also cope with her next door neighbour, rival trainer Julien Larocque.
Sharing the same ambition with the suave and successful Frenchman is just part of her problems though and when her world takes a sinister turn, Ginny must decide who she can and cannot trust.
Come Race Day, she realises that there is a lot more at stake than just a trophy...
'Happy to be home?'
There was a pause in the traffic as a string of leggy racehorses crossed the road ahead and Ginny drank in the magic of her hometown.
'Absolutely,' she breathed, grinning at her brother. 'Allowing for circumstances, of course.'
'Naturally,' replied Ray.
They drove up the busy Newmarket High Street towards the Clock Tower Roundabout, and with each rotation of the wheels, Ginny felt herself being reeled in, closer and closer to the familiarity that was home. Despite her eagerness to see her family, a tiny knot of apprehension was making itself known in the pit of her stomach. She took a deep breath as she considered the huge challenge she was faced with. Ray glanced across at her and patted her knee.
'Hey, it'll be okay. You'll be fine.'
'I hope so,' she sighed. 'But how is everyone else going to react to some girl barging in to – let's face it – what's still a man's business while trying not to make a complete muppet of herself?'
'Oh, I don't know. I think The Muppets are still quite popular although I must say I'm more of a Rainbow fan myself,' Ray teased, flicking on his indicator.
'Were any of the Muppets racing trainers?' Ginny said. 'Seriously, what sort of reaction am I going to get?'
Ray looked at her again, concern clouding his blue eyes.
'I don't know. What I do know is that a few disapproving looks aren't going to be enough to stop you.'
Ginny watched the road ahead, a silent battle between her insecurities and ambition raging inside her. Ray was right. She wouldn't let a few sneers get her down, not in the long run anyhow. She tried to examine her position objectively. Horse racing wasn't as sexist as it might once have been considered, but they hadn't made it much easier for women to work their way into the industry. It was already packed full of strong-willed, ambitious men whose steely rule over those around them could make people tremble in their boots yet ironically they all had one important thing in common: they all loved horses. Ginny's highs were balanced out by moments like these where her confidence could enter a limbo competition with a fair chance of winning.
'You're made of tougher stuff,' Ray said.
Ginny looked at her brother for reassurance.
'I'm going to need your help, Ray if I'm to get things back on track. I don't think I can do it alone.'
Ray squeezed her knee and winked at her.
'I'll be right beside you, clearing the path of danger.'
'Knew I could count – Ray, look out!'
Ray snapped back to attention too late. An intrusive squeal of brakes preceded a jarring crunch. Ginny shrank in her seat as she heard the clatter of a bumper bouncing over the roundabout.
'Oh, hell,' she moaned, seeing the dark-haired occupant of a black Lotus, angled across the road, unfurl from the driver's side. 'What were you saying?'
'I was clearing your path of danger,' Ray muttered. With a sigh of resignation, he unbuckled his seatbelt and got out to inspect the damage.
Scrabbling with her belt, Ginny followed suit. With dismay, she saw part of the sports car's front end strewn over the roundabout island. To make things worse, there was hardly a dent on Ray's old and rusty Ford.
'Did they miss out the roundabout task during your driving test?'
Ginny was drawn back to the owner of the other car by the dry sarcasm beneath a lyrical French accent. Newmarket's wintery sunshine angled off his high Slav cheekbones beneath eyes dark with annoyance. Thanks to Charlie, she had written men off over a year ago as a waste of precious time and emotion, but that was before this – Ginny tried not to stare – this apparition appeared. She wished she hadn't been travelling for the best part of twenty-four hours and couldn't resist flicking her limp auburn hair over her shoulders.
'No, no. Of course not,' said Ray, looking flustered. 'Look, I'm really very sorry. I just didn't see you –'
'Oh, God,' Ginny gasped. She dragged her fingers through her hair, appalled as she realised they wouldn't have crashed if she hadn't been distracting Ray.
An angry hoot from another motorist captured their attention and the man, hands hooked over his hips, said something in French which she couldn't understand but was in no doubt of its meaning. He certainly wasn't very happy.
'Why don't we move everything to the side of the road?' she suggested. The Frenchman looked at her as if he hadn't even noticed her presence before, then coolly motioned to the vulnerable-looking bumper lying prostrate on the tar. Ginny interpreted this as her task to retrieve it, which she did as Ray and the Frenchman went to move their respective cars.
Once out of the way of the traffic, they reconvened on the curb.
'My insurance will pick this up. I'm very sorry,' Ray apologised again.
The man grunted then narrowed his eyes at him.
'Aren't you Kennedy's son?'
'Yes,' Ray said, for a moment looking surprised. 'How did you know?'
'I've seen you around,' he replied with a vague brush of his hand. 'You say your insurance will cover this?'
'I'll give you my number then.' He reached into his jeans pocket and drew out his wallet then passed a business card to Ray. Ray scrabbled in his pockets for his Newmarket Equine Veterinary Practice card to exchange.
'Here you are,' Ginny said to the man, proffering the Lotus' bumper. She gave him an appeasing smile and for a moment she thought she saw a flicker of amusement flash through his eyes, but it was gone within a blink. He took it, looking at her with such scrutiny that she was forced to avert her gaze. He snapped the part in half on the ground with his foot in order to fit it into the miniscule boot.
'I'll get onto them straight away,' Ray called as the man got back into his car. Then glancing at the card, added, 'Mr Larocque.'
But the Frenchman was already gone.
'Mum? Dad?' Ginny called, shouldering open the front door of Ravenhill House and hauling some of her luggage inside.
She could hear her mother in the kitchen, above the cheerful banter of Radio 2. Beth appeared at the other end of the hallway. She clapped her hands like a little girl then hurried over to greet her daughter. Holding each other tight, Ginny felt tears prick behind her eyes. She gulped and tried to blink them away. Beth rocked her from side to side.
'Oh, thank God you're home.'
'I've missed you too, Mum.'
'I can't get your father to shut up about you and those blasted horses.'
'Oh,' Ginny said, her embrace losing some of its potency.
Beth cupped Ginny's heart-shaped face in her hands.
'Look how brown you are. Do you use sun cream over there?'
'When I remember.'
'Oh well, you're here now. We can go get you some decent moisturiser from Boots. Ray, thank you for picking Ginny up. I couldn't face it,' Beth apologised to her daughter. 'You know how I hate driving on the motorway. Lovie, will you help take Ginny's bags up to her room? Come up and see your father,' she said, ushering Ginny further into the draughty Victorian house. 'He's still upstairs in bed. How was your flight?'
'The flight was fine. It was the drive home that was hairy.'
Immediately Ginny regretted opening her mouth.
'I was distracting Ray and he bumped into someone on the roundabout,' she explained with a dismissive wave of her hand.
'Oh, Ginny. Are you okay? Ray, you really should be more observant.'
'Yes, Mum,' Ray muttered, trying to manoeuvre two obese suitcases up the stairwell behind them.
'Mind my wallpaper with those, Ray. Was it bad?'
'The wallpaper? Well, if you want my honest opinion, Mum, it is a bit dated –'
'The accident, Raymond. Was the accident bad?'
'Not really. The other guy's car came off worse.'
'Well, still best not tell your father. He doesn't need any extra worry.'
They reached the top of the stairs and Ginny peeped into her parents' bedroom.
'Ginny!' Jim exclaimed in delight. She tried to camouflage her immediate shock with a smile. Jim Kennedy lay, propped up by big pillows, his face with barely more colour than the white sheets surrounding him. His hair was entirely grey now, a dark silvery shade. His weathered face looked more worn, years of worry and stress etched deep in frown lines, and the hollowness of his cheeks and eyes showed drastic weight loss.
Despite her efforts to be strong, Ginny felt a lump rising in her throat and she struggled to swallow it. Jim shifted upright and held out his arms. Instinctively, Ginny swept across the room into her father's embrace. This time she couldn't hide the tears and they streamed down her cheeks, soaking Jim's flannel-gowned shoulder.
'Now, now. It's okay,' he soothed, stroking her back in a comforting gesture. 'You're home now.'
No amount of persuasion, blackmail or threats from Beth could make Jim stay in bed to rest that afternoon. He was adamant that when the staff returned for evening stables, he should be there to introduce Ginny to them.
Ginny followed her father's groggy lead out of the house and down the brick path which bisected the front garden. Jim paused to examine his rose bushes, raising the closed heads to check if they were opening yet before carrying on out the rotten picket gate and alongside the gravelled car park to the yard's arched entrance. The traditional-style stables, which had been modified and extended when business at Ravenhill had been flourishing, now appeared worryingly empty to Ginny. The heavy intermingling aroma of horses and hay hung in the air, so familiar to her that she breathed in a deep comforting lungful.
'First, let me show you our new champ,' Jim said, bustling across the brick yard. He stopped outside a stable and beamed at Ginny. 'This is Shanghai Dancer. He won four out of four last season including the Richmond Stakes.'
Ginny peered over the half door just as the horse came to investigate their arrival. She raised her hand for the colt to smell and stroked his soft muzzle, brushing stray grains of bran from his whiskers as she inspected him.
'He's a nice-looking colt,' she complimented, admiring how the horse's chiselled chestnut head moulded into a strong deep neck.
'Even better looking when we have him out on the track again. He could really turn things around for us, Ginny. I know he could.' Jim was breathless with excitement and his pale blue eyes sparkled. 'He might even be good enough for a Classic –'
'Evening, Mr Kennedy. How are you feeling?' a young voice called from down the concourse. A slight girl, no more than twenty, had just let herself out of a stable carrying an empty bucket. She walked towards them with a smile on her freckled face.
'Much better, thanks, Kerry,' Jim replied, his tone softening. 'Ginny, this is Kerry Gardener. Kerry, this is my daughter, Ginny.'
'Nice to meet you,' Kerry grinned, grasping Ginny's hand in a firm grip.
'Where is everyone else?' Jim asked.
'Alex and Darragh are rugging up and Des is just there, coming out of the tack room,' she said pointing behind them.
Ginny swivelled round, thankfully recognising the man. It had been three years since she'd last seen Des and he'd only just started working at Ravenhill Stables when she'd packed her bags to leave. He wasn't a work rider, she knew and didn't seem to partake in very many regular stable duties, which didn't surprise her very much considering he looked close to seventy.
'Ginny!' he exclaimed, limping over to them. 'Been a while since I saw you last.'
'Hey, Des. How's it going?'
'Listen to you! You even speak like a South African now! I'm okay. Arthritis in my hip still playing up but I don't complain –'
Kerry snorted and Des glared at her.
'Kerry, why don't you go grab Alex and Darragh?' Jim suggested.
Appeased at her dismissal, Des turned to Ginny again with a smile.
'So you've come back to save the day?'
'I don't know about that,' she said with a strained laugh.
'Sure she has,' Jim said. He wrapped a proud arm round her shoulders. 'We're going to have our best season yet this year. You mark my words. She'll give Larocque a run for his prize money, I guarantee.'
Jim and Des' chuckles drowned out Ginny's puzzled 'Larocque?'
Copyright © Hannah Hooton, 2012