Authors: Stacy Gregg
Tara fell silent for a moment, stunned by the request.
“Georgie,” she said at last, “perhaps you were unfairly dealt with in that final assessment last term. But you had been failing in my class for some time before that.”
“I know Belle and I had problems,” Georgie said, “but we sorted them out. She's going brilliantly now. If you just let us back in you'll see.”
“I can't make exceptions for you, Georgie,” said Tara, shaking her head. “How would that look to the other riders?”
“Like you cared,” Georgie said. She knew she was overstepping the mark, and she expected Tara to lose her temper, but her former instructor looked sympathetic.
“I do care, Georgie. But I can't let you back into the class just like that.”
Georgie nodded mutely, her heart broken. She turned and was about to leave when Tara spoke again.
“Come back and talk to me about it at the end of term, Georgie. I may have a couple of spaces opening up in the class by then. If you're excelling in your subjects maybe then we can talk to the headmistress about your possible reinstatement.”
“So you'd take me back next term?”
“You'd need to convince Mrs Dickins-Thomson. I'm not making any promises,” Tara said. “Do your best for the rest of the term and thenâ¦ we'll see.”
It was cold outside as she left the stables and Georgie was glad that she'd worn her new coat. The classic army-green Barbour her dad had given her as a Christmas gift was her prized possession.
She couldn't believe her father would know enough to buy her the jacket. Her dad had a very bad track record at choosing her presents so it must have been Lucinda's choice. Either way, Georgie didn't care â she'd loved the look on her dad's face when she had said with absolute honesty, “Thank you, Dad â it's exactly what I wanted!”
As she headed along the driveway back to Badminton House, Georgie shoved her hands deep in the tartan-lined pockets of the Barbour. Her conversation with Tara had given her the smallest scrap of hope, but in a way that only made it worse. She would spend the whole term struggling with a new class â and for what? Tara might never take her back. What if the headmistress, Mrs Dickins-Thomson, vetoed her request? Maybe Lily was right. Why was she torturing herself like this? Tara had made it clear that she wasn't promising anything â even at the end of term. And what was she going to do in the meantime? Dressage class was a joke andâ
Georgie groaned. She turned round to confront the two people she had been trying to avoid ever since she arrived back at Blainford: Conrad Miller and Kennedy Kirkwood.
If Georgie had thought that the concept of Conrad and Kennedy as boyfriend and girlfriend was creepy, the actual sight of them holding hands on the driveway was even more disturbing.
Both of them were wearing standard uniform navy wool blazers and scarves. Conrad, being a senior, wore long black boots. He also wore spurs, which denoted his status as a prefect.
“Hey, Parker!” Conrad called again. “Nice jacket.”
Georgie didn't respond. Conrad hadn't called out to her to give her a compliment. There was something else coming and she knew it.
“But it's not regulation school uniform,” Conrad added. “Take it off now.”
The look of smugness on Kennedy's face as her boyfriend gave the order was unbearable. Georgie scowled back at them.
“Don't be a numnah, Conrad. I've had a tough day, I'm freezing cold and I'm going back to my dorm, OK? Just leave me alone.”
“I'm serious, Parker,” Conrad said, clearly loving the thrill that his prefect powers were giving him. “That jacket isn't regulation. Take it off right now.”
Bristling with anger, Georgie did as he said, pulling the coat off.
“All right. Satisfied?” She was about to turn round and leave when Conrad spoke again.
“Give me the coat.”
Georgie couldn't believe it. “I've taken it off, Conrad, I won't wear it at school again.”
Conrad shook his head. “Not good enough. I'm confiscating it.”
He stepped forward to take the coat out of Georgie's hands. For a moment she tightened her grip, but then realised that this was going to end badly for her, no matter what.
Conrad smiled as he snatched it from her and then left her with four spiteful little words. “Parker â you're on Fatigues.”
t wasn't the fact that Conrad Miller had given her Fatigues that upset Georgie. The war between Georgie and Burghley House's head prefect meant that it was almost a Blainford tradition for Conrad to dish out punishment to her at any opportunity.
What really irked her was the jacket.
“He only confiscated my Barbour so he could give it to Kennedy,” Georgie told Alice. “She's probably wearing it right now.”
“I always wondered what Kennedy saw in Conrad,” Alice said. “Now I realise she's in it for the power trip. He has the ability to seize Barbour.”
The two girls were on their way to the stables to saddle up for their afternoon lessons and Georgie had some big news.
“I've dropped out of dressage.”
Alice was wide-eyed. “But, Georgie, you've only had one lesson!”
Georgie shrugged. “There's no point in kidding myself. I knew straight away that I didn't fit in. It was all so uptight. No one seemed to know how to have fun.”
Georgie knew that she needed to find another sport that got her adrenalin surging in the way cross-country did. And when she looked through her list of options, one leapt out at her. She was taking her first Rodeo lesson today.
“Yes, Mr Shepard!”
“Call me Shep,” the head of the Western department said affably, pushing back the brim of his ten-gallon hat to reveal a weather-beaten face.
“Georgie, it says here that you've transferred out of dressage class?”
“Yes, Mr Shepard,” Georgie said. “Well, kind of. I was only in it for a day. Before that I was in Tara Kelly's cross-country class.”
“Have you ever done any rodeo riding before?”
“No, sir, I mean Shep,” Georgie corrected herself. “Apart from cattle roping in your Western class in the first term.”
Shep raised a grey bushy eyebrow. “We'll give you a try in the bronc chute and see how you go,” he said in his languid drawl.
Georgie followed Shep over to the round pen where his first-year Rodeo class were perched on the railings waiting for their teacher. In the bucking chute beside the round pen an unbroken stallion thrashed like a great white shark.
Shep paid no mind to the stallion crashing and banging alongside him as he addressed the class.
“We've got a new girl joining us today from dressage.” He drew the last word out as he said it â âdrey-ssage'.
“This is Georgie Parker.”
Georgie waved to the other riders sitting up on the railings. She recognised a few faces from her other classes. She knew Bunny Redpath and Blair Danner, and the two boys that they always hung out with â Tyler McGuane and Jenner Philips.
“Georgie, why don't you take the first ride today,” Shep said. “You step on up here next to me on the platform.”
Georgie sidled along the railings to the platform above the bucking chute. From here she could see the black stallion right below her. He quivered with barely suppressed terror as he stood trapped inside the railings of the tiny space. All his instincts were screaming at him to run, to escape. But instead he was forced to stand there, with the surcingle round his belly irritating him, and the girl hovered above him on the platform, making him even more nervous.
“Crouch down low,” Shep told her, “and swing one leg out over to the other side of the chute like you're doing the splits right over his back.”
Georgie went to do as Shep had told her, and then flinched as the stallion suddenly surged forward and slammed his chest straight against the barriers. Reeling back, the black horse pushed up on his hocks, trying to rear and Georgie felt her stomach lurch in fear as the wranglers on either side of the chute quickly sprang into action and grappled with ropes on either side to keep the stallion's head down.
“It's OK,” Shep insisted, “he can't get loose. You can climb onboard.”
Georgie felt her legs turn to jelly as she did the splits over the chute. She didn't know who was more terrified â her or the black horse beneath her. She wanted to pull out of this whole thing right now. But all the other riders in the rodeo class were watching her take her turn. There was no way she could back out without looking like a coward.
Still hanging on to the railing with one hand, she slowly lowered herself down into the chute, straddling the horse and gently putting her weight on his back.
As soon as the black horse felt her sitting astride him he surged forward in a wild panic, but there was nowhere for him to go. The chute was still shut tight in front of him.
“Just sit tight,” Hank Shepard reassured Georgie as one of the wranglers took a tight hold of the stallion's halter. “We're nearly ready.”
Shep did a last-minute check of the rigging, making sure that Georgie had her hand in the right position with the rope wrapped round and clasped in her palm. “The rope is your safety back-up in case you lose your grip,” Shep explained. “When you get thrown, remember to open your hand. That way you won't get dragged.”
Georgie didn't like the way Shep talked about being thrown
as if it was something that was certain to happen
. She'd spent most of her life until now trying to avoid falling. But falling off seemed to be the whole point of this sport!
“OK.” Shep seemed satisfied. “Remember, hang on with your right hand and keep your left hand up in the air for balance. The chute is gonna open in just a moment and this horse here, he'll come flyin' out with his head between his legs ready to throw-in his first buck. Remember to lean back and go with him and you'll be fine.”
“Ready?” Shep asked.
Georgie gave him a quick nod and suddenly the chute opened. The black horse flung himself forward and gave the most almighty buck that Georgie had ever felt in her entire life. Jacking himself up so that all four legs came off the ground at once, the black horse began to throw one buck after the other.
“Lean back!” Georgie heard Hank Shepard shout out.
She felt the stallion beneath her execute a full body twist in mid-air and the next thing she knew the soil was rushing up to meet her face.
“Stand up!” Hank Shepard was shouting at her. “Get to the rails!”
Realising the danger she was in lying there on the ground, Georgie rolled over to keep out of the way of the stallion's lethal hooves as he slammed his forelegs down into the dirt right beside her.
She stumbled to her feet, her heart racing as she ran to the side of the arena where she could climb the railing to safety.
Still shaking with the shock of the fall, she looked up at the clock on the wall above the bucking chute. Her heart sank. One point five seconds!
She had lasted on the stallion's back for less than two lousy seconds.
“Not bad for a first-timer,” Shep said. He turned to the next pupil in line. “You're up, Tyler.”
Tyler McGuane was a good-looking boy with lean legs, honey-tanned skin and sun-bleached blonde hair that constantly fell over his eyes. He stood above the bucking chute, chewing his gum and pulled a red bandana out of his pocket, tying it round his forehead to keep his fringe back. Then he lowered himself down on to the back of the next bareback bronc that had been lined up ready in the chute â a solid chestnut stallion by the name of Widowmaker.
Shep waited until Tyler gave him the nod and then the chute swung open with a loud bang. Widowmaker came barrelling out at top speed and flung his head down between his forelegs to start bucking. Tyler instinctively threw his torso so far back he was almost lying flat against the stallion's rump to absorb the motion. Widowmaker lashed both hind legs out towards the sky. He was bucking as hard as he could and no sooner did his hooves touch the ground than he let rip again, spinning left and right as he did so, trying to dislodge the rider on his back. Tyler was rocking back and forth, one hand waving high over his head for balance, his backside glued to the saddle.
The clock positioned above the chute was counting down the seconds. For a bareback bronc rider to win they had to last ten seconds on the bronc's back. Tyler had already reached eight seconds. Georgie watched the clock as it reached nine seconds, then ten and the bell rang. Tyler had made it!
At the far end of the arena the gates suddenly swung wide open and Tyler's best friend, Jenner Philips, galloped in on a stocky grey Quarter Horse. In a few quick strides Jenner had lined his grey horse up alongside Tyler's bronc. As Jenner pulled alongside him Tyler reached up his free arm and swung it round Jenner's shoulders. Jenner suddenly slowed the grey horse up and as the chestnut bronc kept galloping forward the two horses parted company. Tyler was yanked free and clear off Widowmaker's back so that he was dangling off the side of Jenner's grey Quarter Horse. A few strides later, Jenner had lowered his friend to the ground and Tyler, nimble as a cat, landed on his feet in the middle of the arena.
It was a faultless dismount. On the sidelines the rest of the Western class applauded and wolf-whistled to show their approval. “Way to go, Tyler!” Bunny Redpath hollered out as Tyler loped out of the arena.
In the chute Blair Danner was preparing to ride. Georgie watched her wrap her hand tight in the rigging rope, her blonde hair tied back in a ponytail and a tense expression on her pretty face.
“Now this oughta be good.”
Georgie turned round. It was Tyler McGuane. He was leaning up on the railing right beside her.
“They don't come much better than Blair,” Tyler said. “She's ridden bareback and saddle bronc classes at Calgary.”
“Calgary?” Georgie said. “What's that?”
“Are you kiddin' me?” Tyler gave her a funny look. “The Calgary Stampede's only the biggest rodeo in the world.”
Georgie shook her head. “Sorry. I'm more into English riding.”
“So why have you taken up this class?” Tyler asked suspiciously. “Are you a buckle bunny or something?”
,” Tyler said. “That's what cowboys call the girls who hang around the rodeo circuit.”
Tyler lifted up his school shirt and at first Georgie thought he was just showing off the bull horn scars on his tanned, muscular torso, but then she realised she was meant to be looking at the buckle of his belt. It was made of bronze and imprinted with a steer head.
“I won this buckle at Calgary,” Tyler lowered his shirt again.
“That's pretty cool,” Georgie said.
Tyler shrugged. “It's a steer-roping buckle. The really good cowboys win their buckles for bareback or saddle bronc. The buckle bunnies all want to date a cowboy with a bronc buckle.”
“You're kidding!” Georgie giggled. “You mean there are girls who honestly care about what sort of buckle you've got? Like rodeo groupies?”
“Totally,” Tyler said.
“Well, no,” Georgie said, more amused than insulted by the question, “I'm not a bunny.”
“Then what are you doin' here?” Tyler said. “No offence, but you don't strike me as a rodeo rider.”
“I got eliminated from cross-country and I needed a new option class,” Georgie said.
She would never have admitted it to Tyler, but she'd picked rodeo because it looked like fun â plus it seemed like an easy subject to ace an âA' in the exams and impress Tara. Honestly, how hard could it be to ride like a cowboy? They just seemed to flap their arms and legs to make their horses go â as far as Georgie had thought, there was no real skill involved!
Now, as she watched Blair Danner come flying out of the chute on her bronc, hanging on like she was riding a tornado, Georgie realised she was just as much out of her element here as she had been in the dressage class. She could see the concentration in Blair's eyes as she threw herself backwards with the movement of the bronc and the strength in her skinny, tanned arms as she gripped the rigging to keep her seat. As the clock ticked on towards the ten-second bell, Georgie marvelled at Blair's skill. Even while the bronc was trying to buck her off, Blair Danner was still lazily chewing her gum.
Georgie jumped down off the railing of the round pen. “I'll catch you later, OK, Tyler?”
Tyler frowned. “You're going? But class isn't over. Don't you want another turn in the chute?”
“No, thanks,” Georgie smiled. “I think one humiliating fall per day is my limit.”
As Georgie walked back towards the stables, she knew that she was never going back. After her epic fail in the arena she doubted that Shep would be too heartbroken to lose her, but Mrs Dubois might be a different matter. She could only imagine the look on the school bursar's face when she broke the news that she would be changing classes yet again this term. This was starting to get embarrassing.
“On the plus side, at least you're sitting with us in the dining hall again,” Alice pointed out when Georgie joined the eventers' table. “I could never really imagine you hanging out with the Westerns â line-dancing and Stetson-wearing is so not your thing.”
“I don't know,” Daisy King said, “I always thought Georgie would suit those white leather boots with the tassels.”
Georgie got up from the table and picked up her tray. “I have to go.”
Daisy's face dropped. “Hey, Georgie, I was only jokingâ¦”
“I know,” Georgie said. “I have to go and report to the library. Conrad Miller has put me on Fatigues, remember?”
The prefects at Blainford were ruthless, dishing out Fatigues each week and it didn't matter how trivial or huge the crime had been, everyone got the same punishment â and this week that involved cleaning the library.
“Right!” Mr Wainwright the librarian addressed the group of twelve pupils. “The sooner we get started the sooner we'll get this done. It's quite simple. Take all the books off the shelf, then using the damp cloths you've been provided with, give the shelf a good dust before putting the books back again.”