Authors: Stacy Gregg
The boy signed his name into the guest register and then gave Issie a grin. “
it's your turn,” he said.
Exhausted and fed up, Issie finally stepped up for her turn at the desk. “I'd like two rooms, please, and a loose box for my horse and hay for the evening.”
The man shook his head. “Sorry, miss. No can do.”
“What?” Issie was stunned. “What do you mean?”
“I've got the two rooms,” the man continued, “but I haven't got any more horse stalls available.”
The man behind the desk pointed out the doors to the boy in the white T-shirt outside in the forecourt.
“Your friend out there, he just took the last one.”
This was a nightmare! It was dark, they were exhausted, they had been travelling for twelve hours straight and there was nowhere else for them to go.
“I'm sorry,” the motel manager said, “it's been crazy-busy today and I've got five horses checked in already â we've got no vacancies.”
“Don't you have anything else at all?” Issie pleaded.
“Well,” the man said, “that last stall I gave to the boy has a partition gate in it. You could always ask him if he's willing to share the loose box and get both your horses in there for the night.”
Issie looked out of the doors of the motel reception. The boy was by his truck on the forecourt, making a call on his mobile phone.
“I'll go and ask him,” she told the motel manager. “I'll be right back.”
The boy had pocketed his phone and was just about to climb back in his truck when Issie rushed over to him.
The boy looked up at her. She noticed at that moment that his hair was a really unusual colour, somewhere in between blond and copper, and that he had the coolest pale green eyes. “Yes?”
Issie took a deep breath and summoned up her last reserves of good humour and smiled at him. “I'm sorry about what happened in there.”
“That's OK,” the boy said, “don't worry about it.”
“My name is Isadora, by the way,” she said and stuck out her hand.
The boy took it and shook it. “I'm Marcus, Marcus Pearce.”
He was about to climb into his truck, but Issie blocked his path. Marcus frowned at her. “Is there something else?”
“Ummm, yes,” Issie said. “You see, the funny thing is, it turns out you got the last stallâ¦”
“Is that so?” Marcus raised an eyebrow.
“â¦ and I was just talking to the guy behind the desk and he suggested that your horse and my horse might, you know, share a stall for the night. There's a partition gate we can put in so they'd be kept separate and they'd be quite safe.”
“Let me get this straight,” Marcus said. “You want to share my stall?”
“Well,” Issie couldn't help pointing out, “strictly speaking, if you hadn't pushed into the queue ahead of me then it would be my stallâ¦”
Marcus shook his head in disbelief and began to get back in his truck again.
“Wait!” Issie said. “Please. My horse has nowhere else to sleep tonight and we've come all the way from Los Angeles and I'm jetlagged and I'm just really, really tiredâ¦”
Marcus raised a hand to stop her from continu ing. “OK, OK. I guess I wouldn't be able to sleep if I knew your horse was stuck on the street for the night.”
He smiled at her. “It looks like my mare has a new room-mate.”
Avery and Stella already had Comet unloaded and waiting when Issie turned up with a total stranger in a sleek black horse truck.
“This is Marcus Pearce.” Issie did the introductions. “They were short on stalls so he's offered to let his mare share with Comet.”
Marcus grinned at the sight of the skewbald standing before him. “He's a cute little guy, isn't he?” he said. “Where are you taking him?”
“Lexington, Kentucky,” Issie said. “We're competing in the Four-Star.”
“He's only a pony,” Issie said, “but he's more impressive on the cross-country than he looks.”
“I didn't mean it like that,” Marcus said. “It's a coincidence, that's all. I'm riding at Kentucky too.”
From inside Marcus's truck there came a whinny as if to confirm this, followed by the sound of hooves moving restlessly, thudding against the rubber-matting floor.
“I think my mare is tired of being cooped up,” Marcus said. “I'd better unload her.”
He lowered the truck ramp and the girls got a rear view of the mare's long silvery blonde tail and chocolate brown legs dressed in hock-high white sheepskin floating boots.
Marcus made gentle clucking noises at the mare to get her moving down the ramp, although she hardly needed much encouragement. After being on the road for so long she almost bounded off, her head held high and erect, nostrils wide with excitement as she sniffed the air and looked around.
Issie couldn't believe how pretty she was. The mare had a long silver-blonde mane that matched her lustrous tail, and her coat was a delicious cocoa colour with dapples in the chocolate on her rump and over her shoulders.
“She's unusual-looking, isn't she?” Marcus said as the girls stared at the mare. “She's a silver dapple.”
Stella wrinkled her nose. “She looks more like chocolate to me.”
“That's just what they call it,” Marcus said. “A chocolate coat and a silver mane and tail. She's got three white socks underneath those floating boots too.”
He ran a hand over the mare's neck. “My groom Annie is supposed to keep her mane short so that it's easy to plait for competitions, but she keeps letting it grow long because it's too pretty to pull.”
Issie looked at the long forelock hanging down over the mare's eyes. “You should at least trim her forelock. I'm surprised she can even see the jumps from underneath all that hair!”
The mare seemed to know that everyone was talking about her. She moved about anxiously, her sheepskin-booted legs never staying still for more than a second. As she watched the mare strutting about, Issie put aside the mare's striking colour and examined her conformation with a cool, professional eye. The horse was a good size, about sixteen hands high, but lightly built with a lean frame and long legs that were perfect for travelling fast across country. Her shoulders had a perfect slope â the mark of a good mover â and she had exceptionally powerful hindquarters. It was the mare's face that Issie liked best, though. She had dainty white markings, a tiny white star beneath her silver-blonde forelock, and at the end of her muzzle there was a cute white snip as if she had dipped her nose into a pot of paint and then thought better of it. Her liquid brown eyes were wide set and intelligent.
“What's her name?” Issie asked.
“Valmont Liberty,” said Marcus. “Valmont is the name of the stable that owns her â her name is Liberty.”
As they'd been talking, Liberty had taken a good look around and now her eyes were locked on Comet. The skewbald gelding was being held by Stella just a few metres away and he was fidgeting at the end of the lead rope, keen to meet this newcomer.
“You wanna say hello, boy?” Stella led him forward so that he was close enough to greet the mare nose-to-nose.
“Watch it,” Marcus warned. “She's a typical mare â she can be pretty grumpy around other horses.”
As she touched muzzles with the gelding, Liberty's ears flattened back and she let out a guttural squeal, making it clear that she wasn't the slightest bit convinced about being friends.
But Comet wasn't to be deterred. He thrust his nose out and nickered to the mare. Liberty had her ears hard back against her head, warning him off, but Comet kept his ears resolutely pricked forward, his eyes shining as he nickered to her again, trying to start a conversation. The mare stomped a hoof, her tail thrashed objectionably. She held her nose in the air, staring at this impertinent skewbald as if he were a commoner trying to make friends with a queen.
“She's not very friendly, is she?” Issie said.
“Oh, she's all right once you get to know her,” Marcus insisted, giving the mare a firm pat on her glossy neck. He smiled at Issie. “Just like me, really.”
The stalls for the horses at The Hacienda were a collection of covered yards, built in a U-shape around a dusty central courtyard behind the main building of the motel. Each of the covered yards was bordered by wooden railings and the floors of the stalls were covered in wood shavings for bedding. It was nice and clean, but it certainly wasn't fancy, Issie thought. Comet would be fine here â but a horse like Liberty was probably used to a life of luxury â a proper, elegant loose box.
“We should put the partition gate in between them tonightâ” Marcus began to say as he led Liberty into the stalls, but before he could finish his sentence the mare intentionally swung her rump towards Comet and flung out a hind leg, taking a swift and vicious kick at the gelding, which thankfully missed its target. “I can't risk Liberty getting injured.”
Issie frowned. “I think she can take care of herself.”
Marcus shook his head. “The Valmont stables would freak out if they even knew Liberty was sharing her stall with another horse. They're very uptight about this mare. Mr Valmont doesn't even call her by her name â she's worth so much money that he refers to her as âThe Asset'.”
“And they let you travel with her by yourself?”
“It was a last-minute thing. I was supposed to have Annie, my groom, with me to help out,” Marcus said. “But Mr Valmont was short-staffed and kept her back at the stables. He's supposed to be hiring a new groom to meet up with me once I reach Kentucky. It's all right being on the road alone, though, I really don't mind.”
“So you ride for thisâ¦ Valmont Stables?” Issie asked.
“Uh-huh,” Marcus said. “Valmont are a massive operation with lots of horses. I was considering moving back to England when my old riding instructor from boarding school phoned up and said she'd organised the ride on Liberty for me. That was six months ago and I've been working at the Valmont ranch in California ever since.”
While Marcus slotted in the gate down the middle of the stall, Issie held on to Comet and Liberty. As soon as Marcus had locked the gate into place she let Comet loose in his stall, and then let Liberty go right next door.
Marcus looked at his watch. “Would you mind keeping an eye on her while she eats her feed? I better go back to my room and charge my mobile. I called Mr Valmont before to let him know where we are and the phone died. He likes to keep track of The Asset â he gets nervous if I don't call him while we're travelling.”
“No problem,” Issie said. “I've got to stay and make sure Comet settles in OK anyway.”
“See you in the morning then?” Marcus said. “There's a diner just up the road. Maybe we can meet there for an early breakfast before we hit the road?”
“That sounds great,” Issie said. “And thanks again for sharing Liberty's stall with me.”
They watched as Comet craned his neck over the partition gate trying to get Liberty to notice him, but the mare steadfastly ignored his overtures and turned her rump on him so she was facing the corner of her stall.
“Give it up, Comet,” Issie said as she turned out the light. “She's just not that into you.”
Even with the curtains drawn shut in their room, Issie and Stella could still see the pink neon of the motel lights glowing softly outside in the forecourt. They had eaten pizza for dinner that evening with Avery.
“We've got a six a.m. start,” Avery said as he scooped up the empty pizza boxes and headed for his room. “You girls should get some sleep.”
As soon as the door was shut behind him Stella began pressing the buttons on the TV remote, flicking through the endless channels. “Ohhh! There's a vampire versus werewolf movie marathon on channel forty-seven,” she said. “Issie, we have to watch that!”
Issie knew they were supposed to get an early night, but if they were only going to be driving again tomorrow, surely it didn't matter how late they got to bed?
“All right,” she agreed. “Turn it on then!”
“Wait!” Stella had an idea. “All those vampires will make us hungry â we need snacks!”
The vending machine in the motel forecourt was filled with strange sweets and chocolate that Issie and Stella had never heard of before. They pushed their coins into the slot and bought two Hersheys, a Butterfinger and a Peter Paul Almond Joy and took their chocolate haul back to their room.
“Imagine having to live on blood instead of chocolate,” Stella said as she bit into the Almond Joy. “It must suck to be a vampire.”
The movie marathon seemed like a good idea at the time, but the girls had underestimated just how tired they were. Stella was asleep within minutes, way before the first werewolf even appeared onscreen and Issie was left awake watching the TV.
The movie had just reached a particularly scary bit where the girl was all alone in the house and the werewolf was coming for her, when Issie heard the sound of an animal howling outside, somewhere in the darkness.
“Stella?” Issie hissed. “Did you hear that?”
Stella responded with a snore. Issie tried to pull herself together. She was imagining things. It was just one of the werewolves in the movie.
She'd almost convinced herself that this was true when she heard the noise again â definitely outside this time. It was a long, high-pitched howl, like a wild creature baying its heart out at the moon.
Probably a coyote
, Issie thought. She recalled Avery saying that the hills around this region were full of them. As long as the coyote kept its distance and didn't bother the horsesâ¦
The coyote howled again and the motel lights outside flickered for a moment, and suddenly Issie had the strangest feeling. Something was out there â not far away in the hills, but right there â outside her room. She could sense it somehow and it made the hairs stand up on the back of her neck.
Turning down the volume on the TV she got up out of her chair and padded silently towards the window. Issie held her breath as she slowly pulled back the curtain. The neon glow of the motel sign bathed the car park in pink light and at first Issie didn't see anything moving. She was about to let the curtain drop when she caught a glimpse of a shadowy shape heading towards her.
“Stella?” Issie hissed. “Stell? I think there's something out there!”
Issie looked back over her shoulder at her best friend who, despite everything, was still fast asleep. For a moment she considered waking her, but then she realised she would feel pretty stupid if it was just a stray dog outside.