Three years later
Bethany was nervous.
She kept fidgeting and shifting from one foot to the other sucking in air and trying to gain control of her emotions. But today was such an important day, so hard won in the end, she couldn’t bare it if anything went wrong.
The mirror in the dressing room was warped and made her look a little like she belonged in a house of mirrors at the funfair, but she could still see herself clearly. She was a little fuller in figure than she had been when she and Corbin had finally been allowed to see each other. But then having babies, twins, would do that to a woman. It was two years since she’d given birth, and only now was she at the right weight again to ride.
Adjusting her collar, she regarded herself. In her trousers, boots, and shirt she looked almost normal except for the number pinned to the back of her shirt. She was number seven, and she would be riding Stripe today.
This was the first, inaugural race of the Montana Women’s Jockey League, founded and run by her, her mother, and her sister. They had lobbied, protested, petitioned, and bothered the men in Montana to the point where they were pulling the hair from their mustaches before they finally agreed to give their group, as they were calling it, the right to hold races.
And, what’s more, they allowed women to become jockeys.
Bethany had always thought that women were born riders. Generally smaller and lighter than men, they were born for the saddle, but she still had to prove it to the men. And all of them were in the stands at the Penitence racetrack waiting to watch the women ride.
The first race of the day was the junior girls’ race. They would be on ponies and would only race half the track. It was a good sprint, and she hoped that everyone would enjoy it. There would be a little clown act, performed by some of Eloise and her mother’s dogs, and then the big race, the one she and Stripe were entered into.
As the organizer, she had been granted this first race to race in to win. From next year, she wouldn’t be able to take part in the main race, but she had plans for her to ride in a previous winners race down the line. This was a dream come true, and she couldn’t be more nervous or excited if she tried.
There came a knock on the dressing room door, and Corbin stuck his sandy-haired head in. He had two little girls with him that were unmistakably his daughters. They both had his sandy hair and Bethany’s green eyes. They squealed in delight seeing their mother and wriggled until Corbin put them both down.
“Hello my blossoms,” Bethany said, sinking to her haunches to wrap her arms around her little ones.
“Mama,” they said hugging her.
She squeezed them back, and they giggled. They were starting to speak a lot more now, and some of their words were even recognizable as English. Their sentences were baffling, but if she got more than one word in the whole mash of sounds, then Bethany usually knew what they were speaking about. It seemed that Tulip was trying to say good luck.
Rose tried too and managed a, “goo wuck.”
Smiling, Bethany kissed their foreheads before rising and kissing Corbin on the lips. She still melted every time he kissed her, be it fleeting or a long, lingering kiss. His touch still sent shivers through her whole body, and she was so glad she’d married him. She had practically galloped down the aisle. Of course, she’d called him all kinds of names when she was in labor with the twins, but it was fine; they’d gotten over that with Corbin saying magnanimously that what was said in the birthing bed, stayed in the birthing bed.
“You look ready,” he said.
“Do I?” she asked, watching Rose and Tulip move around the room trying to find some mischief to get up to. “I think I’m shaking all over from nerves.”
“You don’t look it,” he said kindly. “But you are needed. Your mother is about to give the great opening speech, and she is insisting that both you and Eloise are there beside her.”
“Oh, she’s not making Eloise stand there too? In her condition?” Bethany asked.
Eloise was about eleven months pregnant, or at least that was how she looked. She had swelled in the last couple of weeks in a manner that made Bethany wonder if someone wasn’t blowing air into her. She had simply ballooned out.
After marrying Tyler last year, the two had wasted no time in starting a family, and this was their first child. Boy or girl, both parents couldn’t be happier.
Corbin shrugged. “Elizabeth is a stubborn woman, as you well know. Eloise will have to stand there for a bit of the speech at least. You will too, and unless you want me to get into trouble, we’d best hurry.”
“Well, I suppose since this is for our daughters’ futures and Lady and Pearl’s foals, I shouldn’t be tardy,” she said.
Corbin frowned. “I follow how this benefits the blossoms, but the foals?”
She turned and frowned at him. “The girls will grow up and need horses to ride. I thought since both our favorite ladies are a little tired of racing, they might make excellent dams. And then there are always Heath and Heart to consider. Their offspring will need riders.”
“Are we planning to have them both siring more foals?” Corbin asked.
“Of course, we are,” Bethany said. “Magic Moon and Rising Tide are two of our best newcomers.” She caught the naughty glint in his eye and playfully slapped his shoulder. “You love to rial me.”
“That I do,” he said with an even naughtier grin.
Tulip was trying to reach something on the counter where Bethany had been pinning her hair in a bun and putting a little make up on. She gently pushed the small hand down and regarded herself one last time.
“Alright,” she said. “I’m ready.”
Outside, the sun was shining brightly, and it was a pleasant April day. Spring was certainly in the air. People had shrugged off their thick winter coats in favor of lighter jackets and were even wearing hats to ward off the sun. She grinned at the thought of it all. A day out to watch women ride. She hoped it was a success, that women all over the country got to hear about this race and started such endeavors in their own towns.
Adam met her at the gate that separated the back of the racetrack from the stables and dressing rooms from the front where the patrons waited. He was grinning, holding his notebook and looking official. But then he was official now. An official journalist for the up-and-coming magazine, Horses and Dogs. The name left much to be desired, but it was his first job, and he was terribly proud to be their Montana correspondent.
“So, how is the co-founder of this auspicious race day feeling?” he asked. He had grown his hair long. It touched his shoulders now in waves. Was this a new fashion Bethany wondered? She had seen some men looking that unkept before but never a member of her family.
“Um … I’m a little nervous,” she said opening the gate and stepping through. An official eyed her and her entourage but knowing her on sight he let them all through.
There was a stage built in the winners’ circle, and Bethany headed that way. She would have to stand there and smile, trying not to shake with nerves while their mother spoke.
“I can’t write that,” Adam said. “Give me a quote I can use.”
“Like what?” Bethany asked. “I’m nervous, excited, and thrilled that this day has finally come. That women will be allowed to race same as men.”
He beamed and scribbled in his notebook. “That’s more like it.”
They walked on with Corbin striding just behind her with the twins in his arms. Usually Bethany would carry them, but today she needed to be free, to move her arms and free her muscles from the nervous tension she was feeling. Gosh, were all jockeys this nervous before a race?
Reaching the stage, she found that both her mother and Eloise were already there. The town mayor, a tall man with gray hair was waiting beside her mother speaking. She could see her mother was paying him no attention at all as her eyes scanned the crowd.
“Ah, Bethany,” her father said, meeting her at the bottom of the steps to the stage. “There you are. You look good.”
“Thanks,” she said, smiling up at him.
In the years since her wedding, Bethany and her father had been working on their relationship. It hadn’t been easy. They had both been rotten to each other, and the sting from that didn’t go away easily. It lingered along with the memory of harsh words spoken in anger. But now, years on, they were closer to where they had been than before, and that progress made Bethany happy. She loved her father very much and was glad that he had learnt his lesson about gambling.
Rodney Gunderson had been arrested in front of him for race fixing, attempted murder, as it turned out that the poison had been intended for Peter, Black Heath’s jockey, and for hiring the goons who had beaten Corbin to a pulp. All on his orders. The man’s ambition to rule the Montana racing world had known no bounds.
Since that day, her father had given up all but a beer in the evenings and refused to play any card games but solitaire.
Mounting the stage, she looked out over the stands where the whole of Penitence sat waiting for the races to begin.
Elizabeth Stapleton looked amazing. Easily the prettiest woman in the room under normal circumstances, she looked positively formidable on that stage, in a soft green dress that accentuated her looks.
She smiled at Bethany and began her speech.
Bethany had heard it while her mother practiced and hearing it blaring over a loud-hailer did nothing to settle her nerves. She smiled and waved when she was mentioned, nodded and blew a kiss to her mother in the appropriate place. It had been rehearsed. And then what felt like an age later she was released and allowed to slip into the crowd again.
This time she moved quickly on her own. The pony race was beginning.
There were shouts and cheers of joy and encouragement as the little girls, all under twelve, raced their ponies to the finish line. The top three were given ribbons and rosettes and wore them ever so proudly.
Although Bethany was prouder than she’d ever been seeing the little girls ride their mounts so well, she was too nervous to enjoy it properly. The main race would start soon, and she was on Stripe, her difficult boy she’d picked up at that fair what felt like a million years ago.
He and his brother Star had come a long way. A young woman named Marie Boots was riding him today. She had joined the initiative the moment Bethany and her mother had come up with it, being a very eager and driven young woman.
And it seemed that Adam had an eye for her. At least it seemed that way to Bethany regardless of how he refused to admit.
She met Marie in the stables. Blonde, petite, and very pretty, Marie cast a nervous look at Bethany.
“I heard the speech,” she said. “It was nice.”
“Yes, Mother is a very good speaker. I think she outshines my father by a mile. But don’t tell him I said that.”
Marie pretended to lock her lips shut and giggled. For a couple of minutes, Bethany inspected her tack, making sure that everything was right, that the belly band was fastened just tight enough and that her stirrups were at the length she liked. Anything out of place once she was on Stripe’s back could throw her off her game, and it would be too late to fix it.
Adam wandered into the stable at some point while she was busy and interviewed Marie. It was sweet to hear him speak to her in such a tender tone and have her flirty voice respond. Bethany guessed another year or so and they would be at Adam and Marie’s wedding. What an occasion that would be.
Forcing Father to give up his dream of having Adam take over the stables had been a hard one. It had taken Adam leaving and going to school back east for it to sink in. Adam wasn’t built for this life. At least not as Father wanted him to be. He was a writer, and Father had to come to terms with it. Bethany hoped that he at least took pride in the fact that she and Corbin were more than ready to take over and run the place and that Adam should be free to write. But who knew what was going on in her father’s head? She certainly didn’t.
When she was satisfied that all was right and had checked Stripe over as well, making sure he was burr and thorn free and that his hooves were in good nick, she was finally ready. Bethany took a deep breath and turned to find Corbin waiting for her.
He had snuck up on her, the little Irish sneak. But she didn’t mind. She gladly threw her arms around his neck and let him hold her.
“Where are the girls?” she asked.
“Driving their grandmother and Uncle Tyler insane,” Corbin said with a chuckle.
“How did the dog show go?” Bethany asked. “I thought I heard a fair bit of applause.”
“It was really good,” he said. “Eloise has them trained up well. They did this thing where they jumped in the air and twisted … I don’t know … it looked very impressive. She’s beaming all over with pride. You’d better say something when the race is over, okay? She’ll be thrilled.”
“You ready?” he asked.
She nodded again. “Checked and ready.”
“I’ll help you up,” he said, boosting her into her saddle.
Bethany got comfortable and settled, holding Stripe’s reins. His gray coat gleamed, and his mane had been braided, making him look very handsome indeed. With a flick of the reins, she walked Stripe out into the yard and around to the starting line.
It was time.
On either side of her were other women looking as elated, excited, and nervous as she was. She greeted them all knowing each by name and knew she would forever remember this moment when she and her fellow women had done something amazing. No matter the outcome today, Bethany knew she was a winner.
The race began with a bang, and she and Stripe bounded forward, his long stride eating up the ground with ease. He had filled out beautifully in the years at the stables, becoming a truly magnificent stallion.
As his body moved beneath her, she could feel his power, strength, and speed, the turf flying up from his hooves as he carved out divots. They raced around the first bend. She was in fifth place now, two chestnuts, Star and a bay in front of her.
“Come on Stripe!” she said. “Come on!”
The horse kept pace, running not at full tilt but certainly fast enough to keep in the front group. Around the second bend. Okay, it was time to put a little more in. She urged him on, and he gave more. Now she was third, one of the chestnuts falling back along with the bay. Star was still in front of her. Drat that horse. He was so cocky and sure of himself. Of course, he would be, running in front of them.
But Stripe had never liked his brother beating him at anything, and he pulled on a reserve somewhere deep within and surged forward.
Now it was only the two of them. Only Star and Stripe. The rest of the world fell away, and they ran. Ran as though there was nothing else to do in the world. They ran and ran and only when the crowd burst in joyous cheers did Bethany wake from her trance.
The race was over. She looked around to see who had won and found Marie, leaning over to her, wrapping her arms around Bethany and crying with joy. “We won!”
“Well done!” Bethany said, feeling a pang of disappointment.
Marie shook her head. “No, we both won. It was a tie.”
Bethany laughed and laughed.
When Corbin rushed up and helped her from her saddle to hold her, she kept laughing. The feeling of elation was supreme. She was so happy, so blissful. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. She kissed him as though it were the first time, as though it were the last. She kissed him with all the joy in her soul and with a promise of more to come.
“Well, if you’re going to kiss me like that when you win,” Corbin said, “then may you win every race from now until the day we die.”
“Oh you!” she chided but kissed him again.
At that moment, the world was perfect, and Bethany didn’t think that she could be happier. Whatever the future held, the wins and losses, they would all happen with Corbin by her side. And with him there, she could face anything, anything at all.
The photographs took ages to take with them all, Bethany, Marie, the two winning horses and Bethany’s mother and sister all standing together and posing. There were interviews with journalists including Adam, and finally that night, there was a ball at the Stapleton house.
Bethany had never seen the place looking this fine. It had been decked in candles and lights, and she was exhausted but oh so happy. It reminded her a little of the ball she’d attended at the Shelbys’ that year when she’d met Corbin. That fateful dance in the garden that had led to so much misery. Had she known the breadth of her happiness now, then, she might have born that trial with a little more grace. Or perhaps not.
With the children fast asleep upstairs, Bethany and Corbin were free to dance the night away. Twirling in each other’s arms she thought that some magical spell, much as Adam was fond of dreaming of, must have been cast on the whole day because it had been perfect.
A perfect day at the races.