Prologue

The traffic light blinked a bright yellow glow into the surrounding darkness, a lonely pulsing rhythm that seemed to reach out with ethereal fingers and pull us toward our destiny. I didn't know it at the time, but what lay ahead would change my life forever. Just as my mother and I began to cross the intersection, two cars came flying out of nowhere. Before I could even flinch, metal crunched, glass shattered, and sparks flew as the three cars collided together. Our car was thrown into the air, and as it landed on the pavement, my world went spinning into darkness.

Chapter 1: Sasha

My fingers trembled, my knees knocked together, and my body shook violently while the intense frequency of sirens wailed in my ears and threatened to burst my eardrums. I kept my eyes squeezed tightly shut, terrified of what I would see if I peaked out from under the safety of my eyelids. They were a weak barrier protecting me from what I knew would be a horrible scene around me. I took a deep breath, my mind replaying the events from moments ago, and the images that came sent a shudder down my entire spine. My mouth was completely dry, and I swallowed, wetting my tongue.

"Mom?" I whispered, expecting her to respond, but there was no answer.

I had a sickening feeling that I was completely and utterly alone.

It has been one excruciatingly slow and painful year since the day my mother and I were in a senseless car accident caused by stupid, teenage thrill seekers out street racing, yet I remember everything I felt as if the accident had happened only seconds ago. The accident plays over and over in my mind every day, almost as if I was replaying a scene from a horror movie that I wanted to forget. We were driving down an empty road just after eleven o'clock, coming home from my eleventh birthday celebration. No one was out at that time of night; no one except the irresponsible kids who thought their fun was worth a little risk. As we were crossing the quiet intersection, their glaring headlights crested a slight hill and careened toward us. There were two cars, but by the time my mother saw them, it was too late. There had been no time to react. The police estimated that the oncoming drivers had been going at least 120 miles per hour when they slammed into us, hitting my mother's side as she swerved to avoid them, and our car slid off the road and rolled several times. Miraculously, I walked away from the accident with only a broken wrist and a few minor cuts and bruises, but my mother had not been as fortunate, and I was orphaned.

Neither of the boys in the accident was injured seriously, but when they learned they had killed my mother, the look on their faces revealed her death was a shadow from which they would never escape, and a profound emotional burden they would have to carry for the rest of their lives.

Unlike them, the accident wasn't the first emotional trauma I had lived through. Three years before the accident that took my mother's life, my father had died of a heart attack. There had been no warning signs. He was just there one minute and gone the next. Just like with my mom.

My name is Karen Renae Summers, and this is my story.

After the accident, I was forced to move from my home in Oklahoma to California. My Aunt Sophia, my mom's only sister, adopted me and became my legal guardian. Her family members are my last living relatives. Everyone else has gone. Regardless of coming into a busy household, it has been a long year for me.
When I first moved here, I felt out of place, and the feelings still linger. My aunt has showered me with attention, but I'm not sure she understands how hard my adjustment has been. I believe she really loves me, and I've found love hard to find since my mother died. At first, I thought she had only adopted me because it was her duty as my only family member, but looking back, I now know that she genuinely wanted me to join her family. Despite everything my aunt has done, I stillwish I could just be back at home in Oklahoma, with my mother still alive.
"Stop it!" I scolded myself, rocking back in forth in the old wooden chair by the window in my room. Every day of my life was a trip to the past, of what used to be, and I needed to start focusing on my life in the here and now. I needed to accept my fate and move on. Easier said than done.

"Just think on something else for a while," I told myself, and searched for a distraction, finding one quickly. The distraction was horses, the one good thing about being here in California.

My aunt and uncle own a huge breeding farm full of horses. I've ridden horses ever since my mother first put me on one when I was a baby, and I have continued to love them ever since. In Oklahoma we never owned a horse, but my mom and I occasionally rode at a local stable.

Over the past year, Aunt Sophia has done everything within her power to make me happy, but it was to no avail. About a month ago, she offered to buy me my own horse, aware of my love for them. I think she figured it would be a good distraction for me from…other things, and I had to agree with her. So I decided to take her up on her offer and began my search.

Two weeks ago I found the horse I wanted for sale on the Internet. The moment I saw the horse's picture, I had an instant connection, and I knew this horse was the one. There was a problem, though. This horse, a mare, was in Europe and was very expensive. The mare's price was so high because she was highly trained and skilled in many disciplines.

I hated asking Aunt Sophia for such an expensive horse, figuring that when she had offered to buy me a horse she had had something, well, cheaper in mind, but I decided to at least find out what she would say.

"Aunt Sophia?" I asked.
"Yes, Karen?"
"I've been looking at some horses that are for sale, and I've found the one I want. She's beautiful, and everything that I've ever wanted in a horse. I know the horse is expensive, but if you buy me this horse, I promise I'll never ask for anything ever again." My words came out too quickly, as if I were nervous, and I could tell I'd caught her off guard, since I had never yet asked her for anything.
As soon as I handed her the paper I had printed off containing the information about the horse and she saw the price, she immediately shook her head.
"I'm sorry, Karen, but that horse is way too expensive. Besides, she's all the way over in Europe. Maybe you could try looking at some horses that are closer to home."

My face fell as she handed the papers back; that was the answer I had expected, but now I was more depressed than ever.
Aunt Sophia looked intently at me and sighed. "Karen, do you know how expensive it would be just to fly her into the country?"
It probably wasn't fair, but I stood there for a moment, looking resigned.

I could tell that my aunt didn't know quite what to make of me. She wasn't used to me actually asking for something, and I could tell she wanted to respond affirmatively to my first effort. Her face looked so regretful.

Standing there for a moment more, I knew I was playing on Aunt Sophia's sympathy, but I wanted that horse more than I had ever wanted anything else.

Later that night Aunt Sophia spoke with her husband, my Uncle Paul. "Paul? I don't know what to do. This past year all I've done is try to make Karen happy, but saying no to that horse, I think I've made her unhappier than ever. What do you think I should do?"
They talked throughout the night and the lamp was casting long shadows before their conversation ended.
The next morning Aunt Sophia had asked to see the information about Sasha again. I was a little surprised that she might have changed her mind. Once my aunt made a decision, she usually stuck to it like glue. She went on to tell me that although technically they would be able to afford the horse, it would cost them a great deal.
"Karen, I expect you to take on this horse responsibly. If you decide that you don't want her in a year, then she is the last horse I will ever buy you. Don't make me regret my decision."
"Aunt Sophia, I swear that I will love that horse until the day I die."
"Alright then, I'll make the arrangements to have her delivered."
By the next week the horse was purchased and on its way to me. I didn't know what had changed my aunt's mind, but theoretically speaking I didn't care. I was just thankful she had decided to buy the horse.

There. Much better. My thoughts had shifted from the accident to Sasha and I remembered what I was doing in the rocking chair. I was waiting for her arrival. Sasha, that's what I had decided to call her.

Sasha's sale had been a private one, and Aunt Sophia had been able to speak with the owner over the phone, asking about her history and skills, making sure the horse really was worth what she was paying for it. Apparently, her owners didn't know much of her history, revealing that she had simply shown up in their field one day. After searching the area for her owner, no one had claimed her, and they had decided to train and sell her, as it was impossible not to notice her amazing talent. I had been lucky enough to discover the sale while surfing through horse sales on the Internet.

I continued rocking in my room and gazed blankly out the window anticipating Sasha's arrival, going back and forth, back and forth, listening for the sound of the trailer. My room was small and quant, for which I was thankful. It made me feel less like an ant in my aunt's massive, 14,000 square foot colonial mansion. Most people had big houses just because they could afford them, but my aunt and uncle needed a big home to house their nine children. Katrina and Daniel were eighteen, but I hardly ever saw them because they were always busy with school, work, or friends. Eric was sixteen, Alice was fifteen, Benjamin was fourteen, and Lydia and Lorna were thirteen, the same age as me. They were also in the same grade as me and we went to the same school and had several classes together. The two youngest were Emily at age eight and Zeke at age six.

My aunt and uncle's house had twelve bedrooms, along with two massive living rooms, a den, an oversized kitchen, a game room, a library, an office, a laundry room, a dining room, a mud room, five bathrooms, an attic, and a basement. My parent's home had consisted of three bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen, living room, and laundry room. It had taken me a while to get used to this giant house.

I jerked to attention as I heard wheels crunching down the gravel drive. Jumping up, I ran over to the window, pulled back the curtains, and scanned down the driveway. There it was; a big white trailer.

Sasha was here! Rushing out of my room, I hurried down the staircase, and as I did I nearly collided with Lydia and Lorna. They were two of my cousins, the two cousins that hated me. I had absolutely no idea why or what their reasons were, they just hated me. Maybe they were upset because I had come to live with them. I don't know. They were twins, but I secretly tacked on the adjective "evil" whenever I thought of them. The evil twins. They were two of the most popular girls at school, and since I'd arrived, had taken every chance they had to embarrass, humiliate, and hurt me. They called me a host of nasty names, but their favorite was "Orphan Girl". Of course, they were only cruel when my aunt wasn't around. Aunt Sophia would have a fit if she ever found out, but I wasn't going to be the one to tell.

When I had first come to the ranch,arrivingwith Aunt Sophia from my mother's funeral, they had been nice. But after a few weeks of school, they turned on me and sold themselves to popularity. Apparently their "friends" hadn't taken a liking to me and decided to vote me as an outcast, leaving Lydia and Lorna to choose between their popularity and first, they had only been mean while we were at school. After a while, however, they became more and more silent at home, and I now doubted if they even remembered a time when they weren't rude to me.

As I hurried down the stairs past them, they sneered at me. They made fun of me even more now, probably because they were envious of the horse I was getting. Their mother had never spent such a huge sum of money on a horse for either of them, and I think they were jealous because she'd made an exception for me.

I couldn't understand how they could be so beautiful yet so evil. They had dark brown hair and beautiful brown eyes as well as perfect faces and striking features. I saw my reflection while passing by a mirror and stopped momentarily to look. My medium length hair was a dishwater blonde, and I had crystal violet eyes. Not exactly what you would call ugly, but I was still somewhat insecure about myself. It wasn't my look that I considered inferior, it was my image. Lydia and Lorna had everything; popularity, looks, money... but I had nothing. I had lost everything that ever mattered in my life, and it had affected more than just my essence.

I sighed at my thoughts and walked out the door and into the afternoon sunshine; I saw my aunt signing Sasha's papers. As I hurried around to the back of the trailer, I heard the driver tell my aunt, "Be careful, the mare seems really energetic."

The other man delivering Sasha was lowering the ramp. I could hear Sasha kicking and thrashing out with her hooves. He entered cautiously, untied the mare, and slowly backed her out of the trailer.

I held my breath as Sasha entered the sunlight.

She was magnificent. She had a jet-black coat; her face and tail were like a Shagya Arabian, and her muscles and height were like a draft horse. Her thick wavy mane and her body looked a brilliant combination of Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse, Barb, and Andulusion. Just by looking at her, you could tell that she had an extraordinary pedigree. The people we had bought Sasha from were not exactly sure what breed she was, but she had a great likeness to the Thoroughbred, especially in her height. Squinting through the sunlight, I gazed at her and guessed she was 16 or 17 hands high. Quite a large horse, but I preferred taller horses to the shorter ones.

Sasha's eyes were wide as she took in her new surroundings.

Reaching up my hand I whispered, "Sasha."

She reared up as I touched her and lunged violently at me.

I backed up quickly, and tripped and fell. Sasha struck out with her forelegs, missing me by inches.

My aunt, who had come around to the back of the trailer, pulled me away, trying to keep me safe.

I watched as the man who was holding Sasha took a syringe out of his pocket and jabbed it into her frightened eyes, Sasha jerked away, attempting to escape the sharp needle. It was only a few moments before the drug took affect. She put her front feet back on the ground and stood there, her head drooping. I looked in dismay from my aunt's stricken face to Sasha, wondering what I had gotten myself into.

"We had to drug her most of the way here. Weused it as a last resort, but," the man holding Sasha shrugged his shoulders," nothing elsewould work. You've got your work cut out for you."

I stood up off the ground, dusted my pants off, and took the lead rope from him.

He looked inquiringly at Sasha for a moment, a curious look crossing over his face, then turned around and shut the trailer doors. Both men hopped into their truck and drove away before my aunt had a chance to say anything.

"And the ad said she was a well behaved horse?" My aunt asked sarcastically.

"Maybe she's just scared." I offered.

"Maybe, but she just tried to pommel you!" Aunt Sophia sighed deeply, "Oh well, I guess we'll at least get some excitement around here. Now, go take your horse into the barn," she said, shaking her head, but trying not to smile.

Was she thinking she had made a mistake buying Sasha? I hoped she wasn't considering re-selling. Sighing, I led my big new beautiful horse down to the barn. She followed me, very slowly. I began thinking about what we would do when the drug wore off. Sasha had given me a rather intimidating first impression, and I guess I had always imagined my dream horse as well, a bit gentler.

I stopped Sasha in the barn doorway, just to savor this moment. This barn had become one of my most favorite places on earth. I loved standing here, gazing down both sides of the corridor. The barn was huge, and housed ninety horses; it was rectangle, with two aisles that each had stalls on either side. I had been amazed the first time I had walked into my aunt and uncle's barn, and the sight still never ceased to amaze me; leaving me awestruck each time I stepped inside.

Looking at all the horses, I led Sasha down the left corridor, glancing from side to side. The stalls were wooden, but strong and firm. They had gated metal bars on the openings. My aunt used wood shavings for bedding. There were mats in the horse's stalls, but the floors of the aisles were concrete. The barn was fairly new, having been built six years ago because the previous one had not been large enough to house all thehorses when the foals were 's stall was situated in the far left corner.

Even though several of the horses nickered at the newcomer, Sasha didn't acknowledge their existence. She simply hung her head down and walked placidly beside me, probably because of the drug.

My aunt employed eight workers, and they were responsible for caring for and exercising all the horses. They also had to muck out the stalls every day, and fix anything that needed repairing.

When we reached the stall I had prepared for Sasha, I opened the door and led her inside. I patted her on the neck and removed her halter. Whatever they had used to drug her, it had a strong affect. Sasha didn't move; she just stood there and looked at the ground. I wouldn't be able to do much with her right now. I would have loved to ride her, but she was lethargic and it would have been selfish to work with her in this condition. I brushed her for a while, making her coat gleam. As I groomed her I spoke to her, quietly consoling her andtelling her how she would love it here, and how much I would love having her here.

When I was finished grooming Sasha, I left the barn and went up to the house.

I walked into the house through the mudroom, which was the size of my old bedroom. Chaps, shoes, boots and gloves were all over the floor. Every single one of my cousins rode and each had their own horse, save for Emily and Zeke, who shared a pony. I couldn't even imagine what it had cost my Aunt Sophia just to buy her kids' riding boots and apparel. We rode English style, and since my four older cousinscompeted, they needed show apparel too.

I entered the kitchen, and the smell of food hit my nostrils. Aunt Sophia was opening the stove, pulling dinner out of the oven. When she heard the door shut behind me she turned around to look at me. "Oh good, Karen, you're here. Dinner's ready. How is Sasha doing?"

"Lethargic, but other than that she's fine."

"Well, I'm glad that you weren't trampled to death." I heard a hint of amusement in my aunt's voice.

"Well, if I had been I think it would have been the first time in history that a barely conscious horse trampled a girl." I said it in a serious tone and hadn't meant it as a joke, but my aunt was laughing as she hurried out of the kitchen to put dinner on the table.

After washing my hands quickly, I walked through the kitchen and into the dining room where the entire family was already waiting.

The dining room was painted a very pale light blue. The table at which we ate dinner was situated in the middle of the room. It was a massive oak which seated sixteen people. I walked to my seat at the end of the table and sat next to Alice. Emily was seated across from me. She was the cutest little girl I had ever seen. Like my Aunt Sophia, she had natural curls in her dark brown hair, and her face was perfectly shaped and beautiful. Her eyes were a dark brown, so dark that you couldn't see her pupils, giving the appearance of brown marbles. They were lovely eyes, and matched her kind and compassionate personality.

I looked at Alice next to me who had dark brown hair that went to her shoulders. Alice's eyes were a crystal-like green, and made her very attractive. Through them you could see that she was fierce, but you could still detect the love and kindness that was inside of her.

Once we had prayed, we began passing the food around the table, making sure everybody got their share. My aunt had made Shepherd's pie for dinner, the best Shepherd's pie I have ever tasted. I ate my food while everyone around me chitchatted. Katrina was usually the most talkative at the table. Every single meal she came up with a slew of jokes, and no one had any idea where she got them from. The way she told them was the funniest part: her voice was animated, she couldn't keep a straight face, and her timing was impeccable. Since she was always talking and telling jokes, she was usually the last one to finisheating. Her dark brown hair which she, like Emily, had inherited from her mother went to her shoulders, and she had very dark green eyes. She glanced down the table at me and opened her mouth as if she was about to say something, but she turned away when Daniel asked her a question.

I rarely joined in the conversations at the table. I was content to sit there and listen; I actually preferred it that way. Even though I had lived here a year, I still felt somewhat like an outsider.

After dinner, I helped with cleaning up the kitchen. Since everyone helped, we had the dishes done and kitchen cleaned in ten minutes. As my cousins wandered off, discussing which movie to watch, I stole away upstairs. My aunt would have tried to make me stay with them, but I preferred to be alone. I ascended the staircase quickly and hurried to my room at the end of the hall. I was thankful Aunt Sophia had given me one of the empty bedrooms formy own. I needed my privacy.

I loved my small room which was filled with a twin size bed, a long dresser with a mirror, a bed stand, desk, rocking chair, and a chest. The chest was the only thing I had left from my parents. Everyone was downstairs, so I took advantage of the rare moment of privacy to open it. I hadn't opened its wooden surface since the day I had left Oklahoma, and even then, I hadn't taken the time to look through its contents. I had only opened the oak chest to lay a few treasures inside.

It was my birthday, and I was a little surprised that no one in the family seemed to have remembered it. In my heart, I was relieved. I needed to spend this birthday alone. I think perhaps Aunt Sophia must have known of my indecision about how this day would affect me, and I think she was waiting for me to say something about it.

Or maybe she had forgotten my birthday completely. It was a sad day for both of us; I know Ididn't want to remember it. Perhaps she didn't want to either. From what I understood, she and my mother had been very close. I hoped I wasn't a continuous reminder to her of the loss of her sister.

Though I was longing to go out and check on Sasha, this was something I needed even more. I kneeled down in front of the chest. It was a deep wooden brown, strong and firm. It had a lock on the outside; I didn't want just anyone going through my privatememories. I kept the key hidden in the last place anyone would look for it— in the lock itself. There was a tiny opening in the back and I could slide the key into it. I put the key in the lock and turned it slowly. It clicked openeasily and I opened up the lid of the chest.

Lovingly I picked up the pictures stored on top, most of them framed, most of them of my parents. I pulled out my parent's wedding album andopened it. My mom had been gorgeous, positively glowing on her wedding day. I glanced back inside the chest to where her wedding dress lay folded in tissue paper. I finished looking through the album and then pulled out the gown. Laying it across my bed, I admired the pure white color. The dress was as white as it had been the day my mother wore it. I ran my fingers over the silkygown, imagining my mother before me. I let it lay there for a while as I looked through the rest of the chest.

The other possessions were my mother and father's Bibles, my parents' wedding rings, a family picture, and two quilts my mother had made for me when I was younger. My father had kept a gun collection, and when my mother died, I had taken his favorite gun from the gun cabinet and tucked it away with the rest of my treasures. Now, I only held it for a moment. I didn't care for guns, and I only kept it because it had been greatly valued by my father. I didn't have to worry about someone getting hurt with it; there were no bullets in it. My father hadn't kept his guns loaded, and if the gun had been loaded, I probably wouldn't have taken it.

I also had kept my mother's diaries, though I had never read them. There were three of them, all very feminine and pretty. I knew I would someday open them, but the thought of reading my mother's words right now was simply too painful. I still treasured them though, because they had been a part of her.

Looking at my parents' belongings brought tears to my eyes. I carefully put everything safely back in the chest, but I kept out a picture of my parents and one of the quilts. I locked the chest and once again hid the key. I changed into my pajamas and got into bed, and turning on the lamp, I gazed longingly at the picture of my parents while snuggling into the quilt; the scent of my mother triggering memories. I missed my parents so much. It hurt that I would never see them again.

"I wonder what my mom would have thought of Sasha," I said aloud.

A voice inside of me whispered back. "She would have loved her."