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Authors: Stacy Gregg

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BOOK: Riding Star
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“Whoa!”

“Nice stroke,” JP grinned. “Come on, let's play two aside. Georgie is on my team.”

It was a fast-paced stick-and-ball session. This time, instead of feeling like she was totally uncoordinated, Georgie was able to hold her own against the others. By the end of the session she could strike the ball forehand and backhand and even lift her stick over Belle's shoulder to take a nearside shot.

She held the mallet in her right hand just as JP had shown her. In her other hand she now held four reins because Belle was kitted out in her new polo double bridle. Alex had explained how to hold the two sets of reins all in the one hand in the complicated arrangement known as an English Bridge. But Georgie far preferred the hold that Cameron showed her, with the reins snaking up between her fingers and thumb of her left hand, a style known as the Argentinian grip.

The practice session lasted for half an hour and by the end the ponies were sweating, flanks heaving.

JP looked over at Belle, who had worked up a lather of white foam on her neck. “So what are your other ponies like?” he asked Georgie.

“What do you mean?” Georgie asked. “I don't have any other ponies.”

“Well you'll need a string,” JP said. “If you're serious about playing.”

“Uhh, when you say a ‘string',” Georgie said anxiously, “how many ponies do you mean exactly? Like two or three?”

“Yeah, right,” JP said. “Try six or seven!”

Georgie felt her heart sink. Of course she needed more than one pony! When she thought back to the polo matches she'd seen at Blainford she'd watched them swap over ponies after each chukka. The galloping pace of a polo game was so fast and furious the ponies were exhausted after seven minutes. A fresh pony was required for each chukka – and there were six chukkas in a game!

“Don't freak out,” JP said. “You can maybe get away with four ponies at low goal level – there're only four chukkas in a low goal game.”

Georgie still felt sick. Four ponies were three more than she had!

Georgie looked over at Cam and Alex. “But you guys don't have your own string.”

“That's true,” Cam said, “but we've got the Luhmuhlen ponies to use.”

Luhmuhlen and the other boys' boarding houses all had strings of sixteen school ponies in their stables, enough horses to supply a team of four boys. But the girls' boarding houses didn't have their own polo strings.

“You don't need four ponies for Heath Brompton's classes,” JP reassured her as they hacked together back towards the stables. “But if you want to compete or play in any of the school tournaments then you'll definitely need them.”

“Do you ride Luhmuhlen ponies?” Georgie asked.

“Me?” JP looked a bit insulted. “No, I've got my own string. I keep them stabled with the Luhmuhlen ponies though.”

“So, if you've played in Argentina does that mean you're a really good player?” Georgie asked.

“My family all play polo so I've been on the circuit during the school holidays,” JP said. “Players get graded between minus-two and ten. Ten goals is the best – there's hardly any ten-goal players in the world. My dad is a six-goal player and I'm a two-goal player – which is pretty good for someone who's just about to turn fourteen…”

There was a thunder of hooves across the fields. Georgie looked up and saw James Kirkwood riding towards them at a flat gallop on his polo mare. When he reached Georgie and JP he pulled the mare up to an abrupt stop alongside them.

“Hey, Georgie,” James said, trying to act casual as if he hadn't just done a mad gallop to catch her. “I didn't know you were a polo player.”

“I just started playing,” Georgie said. “It's my new option subject.”

“Georgie's just joined my class,” JP added.

James narrowed his eyes suspiciously at JP. “How are things, John-Patrick?”

“Same as,” JP responded.

“I hope you weren't boring Georgie with your stories about what a polo hero you are?” James said. Then, with his voice dripping sarcasm he added, “Like you're the big two-goal superstar!”

JP frowned. “What's your problem, Kirkwood? I was just showing Georgie a few moves.”

“I bet you were.” James looked indignant. “Well she doesn't need your help. In case you hadn't heard I'm due to get regraded mid-season so I'll be two goals as well. I think I'm qualified to take over Georgie's training schedule from here.”

“Geez, dude,” JP raised his hands in mock surrender. “We were just playing a bit of stick-and-ball. There's no need to go all alpha male on me.”

JP turned to Georgie. “Listen, I better go. I'll see you in class, OK?”

“Really?” Georgie said, “I'm sorry about this…”

“Hey, no, it's cool,” JP backed his horse away. “I have to feed my ponies anyway. I'll catch you later, OK?” He looked over at James who seemed to be smugly satisfied that JP was leaving. “See you around, Kirkwood.”

“Not if I see you first,” James shot back.

As soon as JP was out of earshot, Georgie rounded on James.

“What was all that about? What have you got against JP?”

“He was flirting with you,” James said huffily.

“We were having stick-and-ball.” Georgie was exasperated. “Alex and Cam were playing with us too!”

She groaned. “I doubt JP will want to play with me again after that wig-out.”

“I did you a favour,” James said sulkily. “That guy is a total numnah.”

“Well, don't do me any more favours,” Georgie said. She turned her back on him and rode off towards the stables.

*

Georgie was still fuming when she returned from the stables that evening to Badminton House. Who did James Kirkwood think he was? There was nothing going on between her and JP – and what did it have to do with James anyway? He was the one who had broken up with her and now he was acting as if he owned her.

Alice was lying on her bed as Georgie stormed into their room.

“You will not believe what James has just done!” Georgie fumed.

“Neither will you,” Alice replied pointing to the envelope on Georgie's bed. “That arrived for you half an hour ago.”

Inside the envelope were two tickets to the movies –
National Velvet
at the Lido cinema in Lexington. Along with the tickets there was a handwritten note from James.

Georgie
,

This movie is a total classic – you're going to love it. I'll pick you up Sunday night at six. See you then – James.


S
o it's all back on again with you and James?” Alice asked as she watched Georgie examine the movie tickets.

“No!” Georgie was still in shock. “I mean, maybe. Yes. Oh… I don't know!”

She threw herself down on her bed. “We had this fight on the polo fields. He got totally jealous seeing me hanging out with JP – which is crazy because there is zero going on between us. And now he sends me these tickets as if we'd already agreed to go to the movies together!”

“What about Riley?” Alice asked, casting a glance at the white flowers that were now wilting in their vase on Georgie's bedside cabinet.

Georgie sighed. “He turns up with a bunch of flowers, and he says he'll call me and then nothing!”

“Erm, you were the one who sent him away, remember?” Alice pointed out. “If you want to see him again, then you should call him.”

“Really?” Georgie said. “Do you think so?”

The truth was, she had picked up the phone half a dozen times now to make the call and then lost her nerve. She didn't want to look like a stalker and the last thing he had said was that he would call her. So why hadn't he?

There was a knock on the bedroom door and Emily and Daisy both came in.

Emily saw the distraught look on Georgie's face. “What's wrong?”

“Georgie's having boy trouble,” Alice announced.

“Who with?” Emily asked. “James or Riley?”

“Both,” Georgie groaned.

Daisy looked deeply uninterested until Alice added, “James saw her playing polo with JP and made a total scene.”

“You're playing polo?” Daisy suddenly perked up.

“Uh-huh,” Georgie said. “It's my new option subject.”

“How come you get to play? Why wasn't I asked to join?”

Daisy's competitive streak was barely concealed at the best of times, and at the mention of this new pursuit it was obvious that her nose was put out of joint that she wasn't involved. On the driveway on the way to dinner that evening she grilled Georgie about the basics of polo and how she had managed to wangle her way into Heath Brompton's class. By the time the girls reached the quad, Daisy was adamant that she wanted to give it a go too.

In the dinner queue she raced straight up to Cameron and Alex, dragging Emily along with her.

“What is she up to?” Alice asked Georgie as they took their trays to the table and sat down. A few moments later they were joined by Daisy, Emily and the boys.

“Guess what? We're playing polo!” Emily blurted out.

“What?” Alice said. “All of us?”

“We're going to play you,” Cameron confirmed. “JP and Mark can play with us so we'll have four on each side. And you can borrow the Luhmuhlen polo gear.”

Daisy looked thrilled. “It's all sorted. We're going to meet up on the fields tomorrow after school.”

“We'll have a chuck together before dinner!” Emily said.

Alex shook his head. “It's a
chukk-a
,” he corrected her with a grin. “You say ‘we're having chukkas before dinner'.”

“Oh, whatever!” Emily was bright-eyed. “I don't care if we're chucking up our dinner! It's going to be awesome!”

*

Polo was all the girls could talk about at school the next day. Daisy was utterly obsessed and had spent the night before swotting up on all the polo websites. She was in ultra-competitive mode, and when they finally met up with the boys at the stables she insisted that Village Voice was too big and heavy to use and had begged Alex and Cameron to lend her one of Luhmuhlen House's polo ponies.

Georgie suspected that this was because Daisy hated to lose and knew she stood a better chance on a proper schooled polo pony.

Emily, on the other hand, was happy to ride her black Thoroughbred Barclay. She was tacking him up in polo gear, which she had borrowed from Alex who was by her side helping her to fit it. Since the School Formal Emily and Alex were officially boyfriend and girlfriend, although the pair of them were so painfully shy that this mostly involved nothing more than sitting together at lunchtimes – which was what they used to do anyway.

Emily stood by and watched as Alex adjusted the standing martingale for her and did up the surcingle on the polo saddle.

“Do you want some help tacking up?” Cameron asked Alice.

“Are you kidding me?” Alice seemed to know exactly what she was doing as she expertly attached the martingale and strapped on tendon boots front and back.

She tightened her girth and stuck her foot into the stirrup, swinging up into the saddle.

“Do you want me to show you how to hold the reins?” Cameron asked.

“It's OK,” Alice said, taking a grip on the two sets of reins and entwining them precisely between the fingers of her left hand in a perfect English Bridge. “I think I've got it.”

She reached down and plucked a mallet out of the barrel in the corner of the stables, winding the lash expertly round her thumb and holding the stick perfectly as if she had been born with one in her hand.

“You've done this before then?” Cameron said.

“Yeah, we've got some ponies at home,” Alice replied.

Alice had mentioned this to Georgie before, but it was only today that everyone realised the true extent of her abilities.

As soon as she was on the field Alice began manoeuvring Will with one hand like a professional, weaving up and down the field in an effortless rising canter as she struck the ball back and forth.

Georgie was stunned. “Why didn't you tell us that you could play?”

“I did!” Alice said. “I told you that me and my sisters used to play with Dad all the time back in Maryland.”

“I thought you meant, like, just fooling around, not like a real game,” Georgie admitted.

Alice looked at her as if she was mad. “Come on, Georgie. You've met my family. Can you imagine Dad taking it easy on us kids? Our games at home are, like, crazy-competitive. Dad was on the national team before he married Mom and settled down on the farm. He's a total maniac with a mallet!”

It ran in the family. With a polo stick in her hands, Alice was like a trained ninja assassin. She cantered up and down the sidelines working on her swing.

Daisy eyed her technique jealously and then began to work in her own pony, a little fifteen-hand bay mare called Lucy.

Lucy was a ‘made' pony –which meant that she was well trained and knew precisely what to do on the polo field. Lucy fell into a polo canter and maintained a steady lope, even on a loose rein as Daisy got comfortable practising her stops and turns.

Daisy looked quite smug with her progress until Georgie handed her the polo stick.

Daisy reached out her left hand to take it, but Georgie shook her head. “You have to use your right hand.”

“But I'm left-handed,” Daisy said.

“Not on the polo field,” Georgie told her. “It's illegal to play left-handed. You'll have to swap to your right hand like everyone else.”

JP showed Daisy how to hold the reins and stick and she quickly adapted to her new right-handed grip. Meanwhile Alex was showing Emily how to take a forehand shot – she seemed quite tentative, but when she finally laid the mallet to the ball it went for miles.

“Wow!” Alex was impressed. “You've got a great swing!”

“Are we ready to play a chukka now?” JP asked.

“How are we splitting up the teams?” Cameron asked.

“Girls against boys,” Alice said.

“We're ready. Let's do it!” Daisy raised her mallet in the air like a sword in challenge.

As the two teams took to the field Georgie, who had been devouring
How to Play Polo
since she borrowed it from the school library the week before, took charge of the girls' team strategy.

“Daisy, you're upfront in number one position,” she instructed. “Your job is to attack the goal.”

Daisy looked extremely pleased about this. Georgie didn't burst her bubble by telling her that the number one position was traditionally allocated to the Patron – the player who paid for the team's expenses but wasn't actually a great player.

The player in the number three jersey is the star rider on the team and the one in the most pivotal role. The number three is a goal shooter, but they are also responsible for covering the field and fighting for possession.

“Alice,” Georgie instructed, “you should go in at three.”

Emily was deployed to the back of the field at number four.

“It's a defensive position,” Georgie explained. “Your job is to protect the goal.” Georgie was at number two, a roaming position. It was her responsibility to keep the ball moving forward, passing to Alice and Daisy upfront.

When the girls had been practising stick-and-ball the atmosphere on the field had been light-hearted and silly as they giggled at mistimed strokes and flubbed hits. But now, as they arranged themselves in the lineout, they all had their game faces on.

There was no ref to throw the ball in to start them off so JP tossed it down the lineout. Alex was first to get his stick to it and he struck it cleanly down the field. Emily was immediately off after it on Barclay, running down the ball. She swung at it, but misjudged her shot and missed entirely. There were screams from the other girls on the team as Cameron and Alex both closed in and threatened to snatch the ball for a quick early goal. Emily didn't lose her cool though. She quickly regained her line on the ball and took a second swing, keeping her shoulder loose like Alex had shown her, and this time she struck the ball cleanly and sent it flying back up the pitch towards the halfway mark.

Everyone turned their ponies to give chase and there was a thundering of hooves as they galloped hard down on the ball.

Georgie suddenly found herself in the thick of the pack, ponies on either side of her as she urged Belle on into a gallop, the mare stretching out with every stride. It was like being in a horse race, except much more crowded – plus you knew that you were going to have to come to a screeching halt at any moment and take a swipe at the small white ball that was whizzing ahead of you up the field!

Determined to be the first one to the ball, Daisy was urging her polo pony into the lead, and just as Cameron was about to take a strike at it, Daisy cut in front of him and swung wildly with her mallet.

“Foul!” Cameron raised his stick in the air, and Alex and JP and Mark raised their sticks in unison.

“What are you talking about?” Daisy said indignantly pulling her horse up.

“You fouled me!” Cameron said. “That was dangerous play, you can't swing across in front of me like that!”

“OK, OK,” Daisy said, “I get it.”

Her dangerous play had cost them. The Luhmuhlen boys were given a penalty shot and Cameron took it, nudging the ball from the thirty-yard line, shooting deftly between the goal posts.

A few moments later Emily and Daisy were totally confused when the boys raced off with the ball and shot for the goal at the opposite end.

“But that's our goal!” Emily complained.

“No, it's not,” Alice explained. “You swap ends after every goal.”

It was only four minutes into the chukka, but already the ponies were sweating and heaving from their mad gallops back and forth up the field.

As the girls headed back to the lineout the score was two-nil against them.

“We need to get a goal,” Georgie said.

“Well, duhh!” Daisy shot back.

Georgie ignored this. “Daisy, you need to stay with JP. Don't worry about where the ball is, just mark JP. He's their best player – we need to take him out of the game.”

“OK,” Daisy said to Georgie.

“Alice,” Georgie turned to her, “you're the best player of any of us so stop holding back. Get in there and attack.”

“What about me?” Emily asked.

“You keep back and protect the goal,” Georgie told her. “If the ball comes near you then hit it as hard as you can back up the field. Aim for Alice. She knows what to do.”

With their tactics sorted, the girls went into the lineout once more. This time, when the ball was thrown in by Cameron it was Alice who got to it first, passing it out to her team mates.

“Mine!” Georgie yelled, charging the ball and striking it quickly a second and then a third time.

She passed the ball to Daisy, but it flew straight past her and over the back line. No goal.

The boys were in possession once again. Alex knocked it in, with a hard shot that drove the ball sixty yards up the field to Mark, who made a pass to Cameron. Cameron was lining up the ball when Alice swooped down out of nowhere and knee-barged him off his line to steal the shot, driving it with a backhand to Daisy. This time, Daisy managed to get her reins and stick sorted and tapped the ball forward, then chased after it, fending off JP and striking the ball once more towards the goal. The line was smooth and straight and the ball went right between the posts.

“Goal!”

The girls' team went wild. It was two to one – they were back in the game!

Back on the centre line, the boys had possession again and Cameron was just about to take a shot at the goal posts when Alice appeared, barging him again and stealing the ball off him for a second time.

“Will you stop doing that?” Cameron scowled at her and rode his mare hard after her, determined to get the ball back. “It isn't funny!”

He caught up with Alice and rode for the ball, leaning right out of the saddle to swing his mallet. It would have been a good shot if Alice hadn't been too quick for him and flicked it with the lightning-fast swipe that sent it further down the field towards the goal mouth.

The whole pack turned to chase the ball down. This time the sound of hooves was almost drowned out by the shouts of the players themselves.

“Get out of the way!” Cam yelled at Alice.

BOOK: Riding Star
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