Hope for a Champion (AU,M/M,ADULT) - Chapter 6C - 10/8 [WIP]

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LuckyMiss
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Hope for a Champion (M&M+CC, Adult) - Chapter 5A - 5/21/14

Postby LuckyMiss » Wed May 21, 2014 10:44 am

Hello, hello! Happy Wednesday, y’all. I hope everyone is having a good week so far and happy that we’re (almost) halfway through the workweek. I know I am.

As always, thanks to the lovely folks who left feedback and those of y’all who are reading along:

Carolyn: Yeah. The “paperwork” excuse really didn’t work, huh? Did Michael mess it up? What about Maria, and what she said and did to further aggravate the situation? I think both are to blame, and they are absolutely a mess.

Eve: You’re too funny! Yeah, M&M are good at going from nothing to ninety in the span of no time… and gearing down just as fast. Glad you enjoyed the part!

Bella: So happy to hear you’re loving this story. Michael and Maria do just keep having miscommunication after miscommunication that leads to heartache on both sides, huh? Michael has a way with words when he’s hurt, and he can turn them into weapons easily. That’s exactly what he did in this last part, and I warn you, he’ll use them in future parts, too, because that’s how he is, though he does it without thinking and isn’t normally such a jerk when his head is on straight. As far as them getting back together… well, we’ll see about that.

Special thanks to Maria, for editing this part so long ago, and to Angel for picking up the slack on my newer parts, which I’ll be sharing here in no time!

I hope y’all enjoy this part!




Chapter 5A


A YEAR LATER.

Maria woke up extra early the day Hope's training was scheduled to begin. It was a gray March morning, and Maria hopped out of bed without a problem, thrilled that Hope’s time had finally come. In celebration of this major life event, she planned to groom the filly to perfection before she went out onto the track for the first time… even if it was just to be walked around in circles after being tacked up.

As Maria pulled on her jeans and a long-sleeved button down flannel shirt, she thought about how life had changed since Hope’s birth. She searched the apartment for her heavy coat, spotting it strewn on a barstool by her kitchen, before turning her thoughts back to what had happened in the last year.

She and Michael had effectively avoided direct interaction one another since their final fight in the breeding barn a year earlier. Luckily, neither worked with the other exclusively, and they could easily get away with the silence when others were around. However, when the need arose, they were cordial to each other, and Maria viewed this as a positive.

Maria understood her need to move on. While her head agreed with that and she had forged strong relationships with others, her heart couldn’t make that final cut. But now, the pain had dimmed to a dull ache that only tugged at her when she was at her lowest. And she was sure he felt the same. From what she had observed, he had been on a several dates, but this time, he didn’t seem to flaunt these girls in front of her, except for his latest squeeze, if you could call her that. Even with her, he seemed to hold off on any public displays of affection.

Maria still felt badly about what happened, and the more she thought about their second falling out, the more guilty she felt. He had laid his feelings at her feet… and she had believed him for a few moments, but when he made that comment about her not leaving for a month, she had flown off the handle, effectively snuffing out anything that could have ever possibly been. Because of her guilt and embarrassment, she continued along her path of avoiding interacting with Michael. She wasn’t sure what would happen if the two were in a situation where they alone had to work together because she didn’t trust herself around him. This had been proven time and again.

Other than her second falling out with Michael, more things had occurred during the past year.

In the summer, she graduated from college — finally — and went back to working full-time at Daydream Acres, much to her mother’s dismay. Maria and Kyle had continued riding together, and she was feeling more and more confident on top a racehorse by the day. While she still hadn’t had the guts to tell her best friend about her dreams or that she had been practicing, she felt like her time was drawing near.

Not only did Maria work exclusively at Daydream, but she ran the team of stablehands, jockeys, and grooms for Liz, and in recent months, they had added new members to their farm family.

Among them were a petite, curly-haired blonde named Tess who worked double time as a groom and a jockey and had become a fast friend of hers. Tess and Kyle had something going on, Maria was sure of it, but neither would admit anything to her because of her past involvement with Kyle, even though the two had gone their separate ways amicably. Maria and Kyle had dated on and off for a few months, finally realizing they were better off as friends than lovers, and Maria was tempted to say something to Tess about just coming out and dating the other jockey for good because they were so much better together than she and Kyle ever were.

Another new groom was named Courtney. The girl had come to work for Daydream six months ago, and she had been combative toward Maria from the get-go, especially after Liz raised Maria to the head groom and the team leader of all the horse caretakers and riders. From what Maria was able to gather, the lanky blonde was dating Michael — or whatever equated to dating in his book — and she was not hospitable to Maria in the least, even though Maria was technically her boss. However, they kept the other girl because she certainly knew what she was doing around horses, and they were lucky to have her, despite her unfortunate attitude toward Maria.

Two other new workers had joined the ranks at Daydream Acres. Jim Valenti, Kyle’s father, had made the move from Texas to Kentucky and was working as Daydream’s barn manager. He was a kind man, and his skill set, while more geared toward a western ranch, was perfect for the stables. He kept mostly to himself, but when Maria had spent any time with him, she knew he was a good guy, especially after seeing him work with the foals and other horses who were having a hard time.

Alex Whitman, a longtime friend of Liz and Maria’s, came on board to take care of the numbers at the farm. While Alex lived in Lexington, he was spending more and more time at the stables, and Maria would bet her next paycheck on it being because Isabel Evans was spending more time at the farm, too. Isabel wouldn’t give Alex the time of day just yet, but the way that Alex was following the model-esque blonde around, it would be no time before she had to stop and notice him. Liz and Maria had a running bet on this, and Maria was hoping Isabel would finally notice Alex within the next six months to get the maximum payout.

The Evans siblings were spending more time in Kentucky, too. Max and Liz were an item — a serious one, at that — and he and his sister had moved the rest of their stock to Daydream after Liz’s success with Triple Star. Star’s three-year-old season was thrilling, as he won the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, overpowering the Derby winner both times. He also won some handicaps later on in his three-year-old season and even received a bid to run in the Dubai World Cup, but unfortunately had to be retired because of an injury that occurred during a workout. In his first season at stud, he was the stable's most sought-after stallion and was still the pride and joy of Isabel, who Maria was liking more and more each day.

The stables were near full at Daydream these days, especially after Triple Star’s spectacular 3-year-old season. The new horses, most belonging to Max and Isabel, ranged from two year olds to seven year olds. Two of them were Hope's age — yearlings — and would begin their training this morning, too. Definitely Spectacular was a black colt with bloodlines linking him to Spectacular Bid, and the other was Evening Romance, a well-built bay filly. Maria hoped both of these horses did well in their training and their subsequent careers, but she selfishly prayed they would never interfere with her plans for Hope.

As for Hope, she slowly filled out, growing into her awkwardly long gray and black legs. When she was weaned from her mother at the age of six months, she was extremely upset and confused. The Daydream team realized the filly did not cope well with change, so they did everything in their power to create a schedule for the horse. During that time, Maria had spent a significant chunk of her time with the filly, reinforcing their bond, as well as comforting the young horse who missed her mother. And in recent months, Maria had been pouring more of her free time into the horse in the hopes that she would begin to blossom even more in preparation for her training. Since Hope’s first birthday, the yearlings were working on trotting, cantering and galloping on a lunge, and this morning was special because it was the morning that tack — the bridle and saddle — would be introduced.

While a lot had changed, even more had stayed the same at Daydream. Maria was still thrilled to be working with Liz and her favorite horses. She had several friends and co-workers. And even though things weren’t perfect, she was happy.

She shook her head at the thought of the imperfections in her life and slipped on her old riding boots, crossing the room in three steps to pick up a carrot for Hope and an apple for herself before slinking out the front door of her apartment, thrilled that this morning had finally come.

Maria trotted across the stable yard. The morning was quiet in the pre-dawn light, and Maria marveled at how beautiful her workplace was. Without a word, she opened the door of the training stabled and flicked on the overhead lights, being greeted with a few whinnies as she walked down the aisle to the stall of her favorite gray horse. On her way down the aisle, she grabbed a pail of brushes and other grooming supplies out of the tack room and continued on her way in silence.

“Wake up, babe!” she called softly as she entered the stall with all of her grooming supplies. She stroked the filly's gray neck as a 'good morning.’

The filly woke up with her touch and whickered her greeting softly, still dozing in the early morning light.

“Yeah, I know, girl. This is a big day, so I have to make you look great,” Maria said as she groomed the filly. “You’re going to blow those other yearlings out of the water, aren't you?”

Hope neighed eagerly, bobbing her head up and down.

“I know you are, too.”

* * * * *

Shortly after Maria finished grooming Hope, she led the horse out of her stall, barely containing her excitement that the morning was finally here. They made their way out of the barn to the outdoor training oval, finding Liz, Michael, Isabel, Max, and Alex standing together, chatting amongst themselves. There was an older man sitting in the bleachers, that were set along the backside of the training track, but Maria had no clue as to who he was or where he came from.

As she was walking Hope toward the group, so was Courtney with Romance and Jim with Spectacular.

Maria watched as Hope’s breath came out in white puffs, freezing in the air. It was an unusually chilly morning for March, and she was thankful she had remembered her heavy coat, even if it was years old and nowhere near as cute as it once had been. As they made their way to the group of people waiting, all bundled up, she waved a bare palm.

“Good morning!” Liz called to her.

“Hey babe! How are you?” Maria asked as she and Hope strode closer to the crowd.

Liz just smiled and grabbed Max's hand, grinning widely at her boyfriend before turning back to Maria to beam at her. Max winked at Maria, earning a giggle from the groom.

Isabel waved, and Michael somewhat nodded at her. She returned the gesture to both of them before sidling up next to Alex and giving the lanky man a side hug, earning a slobbery kiss on the cheek from him.

Hope snorted impatiently from behind Maria, and Alex turned his attention to the gray horse.

“Oh, Hope,” he stated, stepping closer to the filly and placing a hand on her snout. “I didn’t see you there. How are you doing today, pretty girl?”

The horse responded by whinneying loudly and reaching forward, nuzzling Alex’s pockets for a carrot and poking him with her nose until she was successfully chomping on one.

“You’ve sure spoiled that filly, DeLuca,” Alex laughed as he watched Hope munching happily upon the treat.

“Only the best for our future champion,” Maria retorted, sticking her tongue out at her friend before laughing to herself. “And besides, you should know better than keeping a carrot in your pocket around these parts. That’s just asking for trouble!”

Alex shook his head, opening his mouth to speak, but was cut off by the oldest groom on staff.

“What's on the agenda for today, boss?” Jim asked Liz jokingly once he and Spectacular had reached the small group.

Liz laughed. “We're just going to get them accustomed to the tack. I want to have them led around the track a few times to get used to it, then we’re going to have to keep on doing this until they all are used to the extra weight and the bit in their mouths, so we're getting started early.”

“We’re going to do it all today?” Isabel asked, wide eyed.

Liz nodded her head once. “Assuming the horses take to the tack, we will. If not, we don’t want to rush it because this is the basis of their training. This will be something we work on daily and weekly, building up muscles and trust with the horses. Because, while we’ve still got a while until the New Year, we have our work cut out for us. After the New Year rings in, they'll all be two year olds, and we can begin to figure out the rider situation.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Courtney stated, rubbing the bay filly’s forehead, shooting a smug smirk Maria’s direction. “Right, Romance? You’re gonna be the best, girl.”

And the horse bobbed her head in response, causing the smirk on Courtney’s otherwise pretty face to grow, and she looked at Maria, a gleam in her light blue eyes.

“Not if Hope outshines her,” Maria responded quickly, narrowing her eyes at the taller blonde in annoyance.

“Ready to get started?” Liz asked the crowd, breaking up the potential cat fight between Courtney and Maria, watching their interaction carefully. Something was going to have to be done about the two of them if things didn’t calm down soon, especially since Maria was technically Courtney’s superior.

They all nodded eagerly, attention being drawn to Liz from the confrontation between Maria and Courtney.

“I'll make sure everyone has the right equipment for their horses when we get to the tack room,” Liz started, turning first to the Evans siblings. “Since you guys said you wanted to have an active part in the horses training, you can start learning today. Isabel, you can go get the fetch for Romance and Max, you can get the tack for Spectacular. Alex, if you’ll follow Izzie and help out with Romance’s stuff…”

Then Liz turned to Michael, “Michael, will you get the tack for Hope? You can help Maria get her ready.”

Maria's mouth fell open in shock, but Liz turned to her and shook her head, mouthing ‘No,’ as Michael turned on his heel to collect Hope’s supplies in the training stable.

Maria’s eyes followed Michael’s tall form moving from the training oval toward the tack room in the training barn with Isabel at his heels, chattering away. “You owe me an explanation, Lizzie. You could have at least given me a little warning.”

Liz stepped in front of Maria, blocking her view of Hope’s trainer and crossed her arms, looking kindly upon her friend. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently, Maria, and I want Michael to train Hope.”

“Why?”

“She’s going to be a success,” Liz paused for a second before launching into a prepared speech that she had obviously put some time into before announcing to Maria that she would be working in close quarters with a man she could not stand. “You know that. I know that. Hell, even Michael knows that. And I want him to start off on a good foot again.”

“A good foot again? You make it sounds like he hasn’t trained a horse ever! And besides, the incident with his dad’s and his stock was years ago, Liz,” Maria stated crossly to her friend. “And he hasn’t just been some kind of slouch while working here. He helped train Triple Star! C’mon!”

“But that doesn’t make this situation any different,” Liz started again, holding up her hand when Maria threatened to interrupt. “This fight the two of you are in has lasted entirely too long. You both need to grow up and get over it. You admitted to me you regretted what you said to him and what happened the last time you had a serious conversation. God knows he probably feels the same way. Which you would know that if you spoke to him.”

“Lizzie, I beg to differ,” she begged, not wanting to reveal the final fight she and Michael had shared in the breeding barn, the one that had sealed their fate as foes, not lovers.

“No, Maria. You have no idea. You’ve buried your head in the sand even more since you finally told me what happened. And I get it — I really do. But I want you to drop it, okay? And play nice.”

“It’s not that easy!”

“It would be if the two of you would just talk!” A mulish look crossed Liz’s face, and Maria knew she had lost the battle.

“Fine!” Maria raised her hand in defeat, giving up on the conversation.

“Not to sound harsh, but you’re going to be working with him, so get used to it. I’m the boss here, and I’m telling you that you are going to have to live with this, whether you like it or not,” and with that, Liz turned and marched to the tack room with her boyfriend, who had been waiting for her at the edge of the oval.

Maria’s mouth hung open. How could her best friend push her into this position? Of all the people on the farm, Liz knew what had happened… and she still made this decision anyway, forcing her and Michael to spent a significant amount of time with one another for the first time in nearly four years.

Maria shook her head, attempting to shake clear her thoughts. Clearly, she couldn’t just ignore Michael anymore, as Liz wanted Michael to train Hope. She grumbled at the thought of working alongside the man who had irrevocably shattered her heart all those years ago… and whose heart she had done the same to.

“Girlfriend,” Maria whispered to the horse as she stroked her gray forelock. “Things are not going as expected for your training, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. You’ve got me. I’ve got you. And Michael trained some decent racehorses once upon a time… and even last year. We can make this work.”

And with that, she tied Hope’s lead to the fence in a knot, grunting as she put the finishing touches on it, her fingers cramping up from the cold. At that moment, Michael strolled up, carrying a regular English saddle instead of a racing one and a bridle that Hope would be wearing throughout the initial portion of her training.

“You need some help?” Maria asked, shocking herself and him as she looked up from where she had tied Hope alongside the other young horses, Romance and Spectacular.

Michael just nodded, surprised at Maria’s offer to assist, and she took the bridle out of his left hand, doing her best to not recoil at the touch of his hand against hers as he transferred the bridle into her grip. She made his load lighter without another word, tossing the crown of the equipment over a fencepost. She flexed her fingers intentionally, groaning at their stiffness, and turned back to the horse, ignoring him once again.

When he had set the saddle down on the top row of railing next to the bridle, he turned to take in Maria’s appearance. She had crossed her arms and was looking off in the distance, clearly unhappy with Liz’s arrangement.

“If it means anything to you,” he started, running a hand through his hair as he took a deep breath, unsure how this would come out. “I didn’t ask for this. And she didn’t tell me until earlier this morning.”

“Yeah,” Maria sighed. “Me neither. And just so you know, I’m tolerating you because this is what Liz wants, for whatever reason. We aren’t friends. We haven’t been in a long time, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I have big dreams for Hope, so you’d better step up to the plate.”

There was an awkward pause between the two of them, neither looking at the other as each gathered their thoughts, choosing their words carefully.

“Well, Hope should be awesome if she gets the right training,” she continued, raising an eyebrow in challenge. “So don’t screw it up.”

He ignored her comment and called to the short brunette who was waddling slowly toward the nervous bay filly standing nervously next to Hope, saddle and bridle in her arms. “Where do we start, Liz?”

“Go for the saddle first, then the girth if she takes to it well. Do the bridle last, and then walk her around to get her used to the feeling. Whatever you do, just don't rush it. We don't want her to be scared of being tacked up. This is the first step on all these horses’ roads to their careers.”

Michael and Maria both nodded their agreement, and Maria went to Hope's head, speaking low in her throat to the horse who was shifting her weight nervously, clearly sensing something new was about to happen, as Michael picked up the saddle and its saddle pad from the fence and walked around to the filly’s side.

“Here goes nothing,” Michael stated as he gently placed the fuzzy saddle pad, then settled the saddle on Hope's back after lowering it onto her slowly.

Hope pinned her ears and snorted in disgust at the extra weight on her frame. She wasn’t a big horse, by any means, and she had never felt something like this on her before.

“Talk to her or something,” Michael hissed hurriedly to Maria as Hope swung her head around to try to get a look of the object that had been placed on her.

Maria stroked Hope's neck, letting her hand catch some of the filly's long black mane. “It's going to be okay, girl. If you can deal with the extra weight, you're going to become a champion like we all know that you're going to be. But you have to be used to this before we can make you into one. Okay?”

The filly's ears perked up towards Maria's voice, and she relaxed a little.

Maria heard Michael let out the breath he had been holding. “Good job. Should we try the girth, or should we just let her get used to this for a few moments?”

Maria nodded, contemplating how funny it would be if Hope kicked Michael. She fought back a laugh as she stated, “I've got her head. Just do it slowly so she isn't spooked.”

The spiky-haired man attached the girth to one side of the saddle, and then walked around to Hope's other side. The filly pinned her ears against her head again, knowing something else was amiss, and Maria went to action, talking soothingly to her so that Hope wouldn't try to kick Michael while he tried to fasten the girth. Her feelings about Michael were still confusing, and while she thought it would be amusing to see Michael kicked, she couldn't let that happen to him, so she just kept chatting to the filly.

After a few tries and being stepped on more than a few times, Michael fastened the girth successfully and grinned in triumph.

He patted the filly's rump in a friendly gesture, complimenting her, “Good job, Hope.”

Maria laughed softly.

“What?”

“Oh, I just never thought you were the type who would congratulate the horse once you got the girth tightened.”

He snorted. “I didn’t think you ever thought of me.”

She rolled her eyes. “I…”

But Liz interrupted before Maria could get her sentence out.

“How far have you two gotten with Hope?”

Michael was the first to snap out of it, breaking his gaze from Maria’s and smirking at Liz. “We've gotten the saddle and girth done, and we're gonna do the bridle soon.”

“Yep,” Maria fumbled collecting the bridle and reins off the hook on the fence. "We were just about to put the bridle on right now."

Liz smiled sympathetically at her friend and mouthed, ‘You are so telling me about this tonight,’ before she turned back to Michael and said, “Romance won't even let us tighten her girth, and they're putting the bridle on Spectacular right now. Hopefully he won't cause them any problems.”

A horse whinnied in the background, and Liz spun around to find Spectacular, the horse she hoped wouldn't cause any problems, bucking and attempting to rid his mouth of the cold, metal bit. “Good luck,” she called to them as she ran off to help Jim rein in the out-of-control colt.

“You ready to try this thing on, Hope?” Maria grinned, holding up the bridle in front of the filly’s long face.

“To tell you the truth, I'm not sure if I'm ready to try it on her,” Michael stated, making his way from Hope's rump over to Maria and sitting down next to her on the rail near Hope's head. He placed his head in his hands and sighed.

Hope, curious about the new scenery, sniffed Michael's hair and nuzzled it, clearly thinking that it was some kind of specialty grass.

“Hey!” Michael's head popped up as soon as he felt the filly attempt to eat his locks. “My hair is not food.”

“She obviously thinks that it is or that it looks like food. Maybe you should take a hint from the horse?” she suggested.

“A hint from the horse?”

“Yeah, to finally cut your hair? Or, you know, try a new style?”

Michael rolled his eyes, rubbing the filly’s forehead. “Nah.”

There was a pause in the stilted conversation before Maria asked, “Are you ready to try the bit and the bridle, Hope?”

The filly, as if she understood, bobbed her head up and down in answer to Maria’s question.

“She's ready.”

“Let's just hope that she doesn't pull something like Spectacular,” Michael sighed, standing up and looking warily at the big colt who was still up on his hind legs, lashing out with his front legs.

“Here ya go,” Maria grinned cheekily, handing her former friend the bridle, completely ignoring his fears.

“Thanks,” he stated as he held the bit up to Hope's mouth, praying that she would take it without problems. His prayers were not answered as he attempted to open her mouth and slip the bit inside.

The filly, surprised by his sudden action, barred her teeth and flattened her ears, her face transforming from one of an angel's to a very frightening picture.

Michael backed away, taking the bridle with him. “You want to try this, Maria? I don't think she likes me.”

“Michael, if you're going to be her trainer, she's going to have to like you. So I'll stand next to you this time, and you try again. Anyway, you're gonna have to tack her up at the races. I can't do it. I'm just the groom.”

Michael nodded slowly. “True. Maybe it’ll help with you there next to her?”

Maria jumped off the fence and stood at Hope's head, talking and coaxing the filly as Michael pulled the bridle over her head and put the bit into her mouth.

“How does that feel, babe?” Maria pointedly studied the filly as she struggled getting used to the bulky piece of metal in her mouth.

Hope shook her head.

“It's going to be all right, Hope. You know, once you get used to this, you can run like the wind and make a big name out of yourself,” Michael added, brushing the filly's mane out of her face.

“He's right, Hope,” Maria agreed, smiling at the gray horse in front of her. She turned to Michael and stated, “Hold out your hand. See if she does something to it as some sort of movement to convey her emotions.”

He shrugged and held out his hand in front of the young horse. Surprisingly, the filly nuzzled his palm affectionately.

“See, she considers you a friend now,” Maria stated, smirking at the somewhat stunned man next to her. “I think she liked that you talked to her while she was trying to get used to the bit. She’s personable like that.”

Michael nodded, “Okay, Hope. I'm just going to fasten the hooks on the bridle, and then we're going to take you for a nice, long walk around the training oval. Sound like a good idea?”

The filly bobbed her head eagerly while Maria giggled. Her Hope was an intelligent horse, all right. Hopefully she wasn’t wrong in her judgments of her new trainer because Maria was still uneasy about the arrangement.

Michael fastened the bridle and handed Maria the reins. Maria took them, shocked, and led the gray filly onto the track, Michael walking on the other side of Hope's head, each of them muttering encouraging words to the young horse as they slowly made their way around the outer railing of the track.

Maria wasn’t happy about having to work with Michael… but maybe this training thing wouldn’t be too bad after all since they were working toward a common goal and didn’t have to talk about anything but Hope and her training.
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"There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."
-Henry David Thoreau-

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LuckyMiss
Enthusiastic Roswellian
Posts: 27
Joined: Mon Jan 14, 2013 10:13 am
Location: Texas

Hope for a Champion (M&M+CC, Adult) - Chapter 5B - 6/5/

Postby LuckyMiss » Thu Jun 05, 2014 7:51 am

Happy Thursday, everyone! Hope y’all are having a great week so far. Apologies on being scattered recently and dropping by these updates sporadically… the month of May was insane, and I’m happy to report that life has calmed down significantly for the months of June and July. Let’s celebrate!

As always, thanks to the lovely folks who left feedback and those of y’all who are reading along:

Carolyn: I’m glad you’re learning something from this story, and I sincerely hope I’m not botching the information! As someone who loves horses and racing (but is not around it often), I’m doing my best. ;) Thanks!

Eve: Glad you enjoyed the new part, and I completely agree. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear what animals could say if they spoke our language? As the parts progress, we’ll learn more about Hope’s relationship with both Maria and Michael and how it grows.

April: Hooray for your summer vacation and for you finding the time to do some reading. I’m honored that this little story was on your list and that you are enjoying it so far, even though you’ve only made it through the first page of updates. (Gotten any further? Interested to hear what you think now!) Like you, I wanted to be a vet when I was younger and was utterly obsessed with horse racing, so this story, which actually started 11+ years ago, was a natural progression that I took a 10-year hiatus from. ;)

Maria and Michael . . . ALL of their interactions, even the simplest ones, sizzle with chemistry and attraction. But they certainly do NOT get along. I wonder if Michael is really as big of a jerk as Maria seems to think he is, or if she's letting her anger get in the way. In that flashback part where he went to her and told her all the horses died, he actually seemed very vulnerable. Does Maria refuse to remember that side of him exists? Or does she truly believe that part of him is gone?


Their interactions are quite something, huh? And their past, which hasn’t been completely revealed, really adds into their interactions, no matter how hard both of them are trying to get away from it. As far as Maria refusing to remember the vulnerable side of him exists vs. believing it’s gone, well, time will tell. Though if you’ve read on, you’ll know a bit more about what transpired between them and their recovery from it.

Thanks for the compliment on Liz, who I weirdly enjoy writing as ultra-nice and sweet, and everything making sense and fitting together even though it’s AU. The +CC is on the light side for now, but it’s expanding as the story continues to include all the couples in some way or another.

Eva: Hello! Girl, I was the same about horse stories and am the same about Candy… so welcome aboard! Yes, M&M definitely have a complex history that seems endless. I hope you stay hooked!

Special thanks to Maria, for editing this part so long ago, and to Angel for picking up the slack on my newer parts, which I’ll be sharing here in no time!

I hope y’all enjoy this part!


Chapter 5B


When Maria was walking her favorite gray filly back to the stable after training, she felt a set of eyes following her. Cautiously, she stopped and turned to find Michael and the older man who had been sitting in the stands watching her. She waved and continued on her way, not thinking anything about it until she had placed Hope in her stall and was carrying back her saddle and bridle to the tack room to clean them off and hang them up.

“Maria DeLuca?” a deep voice said from behind her, and she whirled around to find herself face to face with the older man. His face was lined with wrinkles and smile lines, his nose was red from the chill of the morning, his brown eyes were twinkling, his black eyebrows were wild, and his head was covered in a bright blue beanie. And Michael was standing back a few paces, watching the interaction with apparent curiosity.

He held out his hand with a smile, “Charlie Guerin. Pleased to meet you.”

Her eyes widened when he stated his name. She knew who he was — hell, she knew a lot about him, especially since she had been such good friends with his son years ago. They had never met due to his crazy training schedule, though, and it appeared that one of the only things she didn’t know about him was his physical appearance.

In his day, Charlie Guerin had been one of the most prestigious racehorse trainers in the world. However, his notoriety had taken a nosedive in recent years after the equine herpes virus ruined his and Michael’s stock at Churchill Downs.

That wasn’t the only thing that had happened, though. Maria shuddered, remembering what had transpired. Meredith and Bobby DuPree, children of stock broker turned racehorse enthusiast, Charles DuPree, had come after both Charlie and Michael when one of their horses had fallen ill with the equine herpes virus after the Guerin stock were all destroyed. After a very public battle and the media picking up the story since the DuPrees were a big name in the horse racing world, the Guerins and DuPrees had struck a deal. In an act of mercy, the DuPrees extended an olive branch to Charlie, offering him a job at the newly built DuPree Racing Stable and work for their empire. If he did so, they would drop the lawsuit. Charlie had been working at DRS ever since, and Maria got the impression that he didn’t have a lot of spare time to be visiting other farms, as she’d never met him before today.

She hid her shock by uttering, “Nice to meet you, too.”

She wondered for a second how he knew who she was and why he was approaching her. Michael certainly told his father all the horrible things Maria had done and said to him, right? And he probably knew about the dissolution of their friendship, too. Oh, God. Her frantic thoughts were stalled by his next statement.

“I am honored to meet the daughter of Brian DeLuca.”

“No, really, Mr. Guerin…”

“Charlie.”

“Charlie, the pleasure is mine.”

“Your father and I were good friends back in the day before you were born, young lady. And I have a feeling that if he were here today, he would be mighty proud.”

“Well, thank you,” she bowed her head to him before pausing, looking up to ask, “But, if you don’t mind me asking… What do you mean?”

“Everyone’s been talking about what you’ve done for that filly of yours,” Charlie chuckled, gesturing toward Hope’s stall, where the filly was leaning her head out the door into the hallway, studying the humans who were conversing. “She has turned out nicely, and it is because of your hard work.”

Maria blushed slightly, then shook her head, “Really. It wasn’t just me. Everyone around here pitched in to help raise Hope. She’s really special to me, though.”

“Well, I beg to differ,” he nodded toward Michael, who had turned away from them and was now chatting with Courtney in the middle of the aisle. The blonde had sidled up to Michael and was leaning into him and his arm was wrapped firmly around her waist as she chatted, occasionally kissing him on the cheek or lips as their conversation continued. Maria shifted her gaze back to Charlie, swallowing the feelings of disgust that erupted in the pit of her stomach. She had no right to be feeling anything, let alone that, toward Michael these days. “I’ve heard stories about you and the filly. And either way, your father would be proud.”

Maria nodded, a slight grin spreading across her lips as she remembered her father. Tears began welling up in her eyes. “I’m sorry. Just sometimes, I get a little emotional when I remember him. I was only seven, you know?”

Charlie nodded, his eyes kind. “It was hard on all of us, and I wish we had been there more for you and your mother. That’s the one thing many of us regret – that we weren’t there to give support to the two of you after his accident.”

“Yeah,” Maria whispered, the events playing in the back of her mind.

* * *

The fall air was crisp that Sunday morning at Churchill Downs, and 7-year-old Maria DeLuca was helping her father with his racehorses before they headed home to shower and change for the 10 o’clock church service.

She was leading Starcatcher, one of her favorite horses at her dad’s stable. Starcatcher was a bay mare who belonged to one of her father’s older clients, and she spent hours with the horse since she was one of the father felt comfortable letting her groom on her own. She hadn’t gathered this on her own, but she had overheard a late night conversation between her parents where her mother asked her father why he was allowing his daughter to spend so much time with the powerful racehorses, especially since she was so small. Her father told her mom that Starcatcher was one of the gentlest horses he had ever worked with — that statement made Maria smile — and that Maria was doing a great job with her. She grinned even bigger at that, and she snuck back to her bed shortly afterward, counting horses instead of sheep to help her fall asleep.

Maria perfected her grooming skills on the dark chocolate brown mare, and she was happy to be involved in her father’s practice, especially since he had been so busy recently.

She leaned forward and dropped a kiss on Starcatcher’s muzzle before closing the stall door behind her, locking it in place with her tiny hands as she turned to see her father trotting down the aisle with his newest trainee, Black Fury. Brian DeLuca’s short-cropped blonde hair shone in the morning sunshine, and Maria smiled as she watched him walking with the new racehorse. The black colt danced on his back hooves, shifting his weight easily as he moved evenly next to her father. They just finished his workout, and if it was possible, the horse appeared even more jazzed than he was before his breeze and cool down jog.

Black Fury had come to them a mess, and her father was slowly working his magic on the horse. Fury, as they called him, was a nervous horse, and he spooked at everything. Her dad told her she wasn’t allowed within 10 feet of the unpredictable racehorse, and she was following his instructions, especially since the colt attempted to snag a sizable chunk out of her arm on the day of his arrival nearly two weeks ago.

Her father smiled at her, his green eyes twinkling, and he lifted his right hand to wave, dropping it from Fury’s lead rope for a split second. That was the moment when things went horribly wrong.

Black Fury screamed, rearing up on his hind legs, catching her dad by surprise. His front legs lashed at the air as her father scrambled to pull him down and attempt to regain control over the high-strung colt.

Maria called for her father, and she watched in slow-motion when the horse knocked him to the ground, landing on top of her father’s chest with his front hooves as her dad lashed beneath him. Maria could see he was in agony, and she approached the spooked horse, speaking in calming tones. The black colt lashed out at her, striking at her with his long front legs, and she backed off, tears in her eyes as she watched her father struggling beneath the animal who landed on her dad’s chest again, the weight causing him to wheeze and struggle.

She screamed for someone to help, and a few moments later, some of her father’s fellow trainers were wrangling the wild racehorse while Maria slid onto the ground next to her father, grabbing his hand gingerly as she inspected his torso. Hoof prints were evident on his flannel shirt, and his chest almost looked like it was crushed.

“It’s gonna be okay, Daddy,” she whispered to him, her curly blonde hair tickling his face as she snuggled up next to him on the straw aisle of the barn.

“Shh,” he called to her, and he squeezed her hand weakly.

“Daddy?” she asked again, but got no response. Panicked, she called to him again, “Daddy?”

It was at this time that another one of the trainers had picked her up, carrying her away from her father’s broken body as she screamed and protested, the wails of the ambulance sirens drawing nearer. She cried as the man — a man she didn’t know at the time — held her to his chest and attempted to maneuver her out of the way so she couldn’t see her father twisting in agony on the dirty ground.

A few moments later, an ambulance slammed to a stop just outside of the barn, and Maria saw paramedics rushing to her father. She breathed a sigh of relief as they began speaking to him in murmured tones. They would take care of him, she thought to herself as she snuggled her head into the chest of the trainer who was still holding her.


He would be okay. He had to be.

Not surprisingly, Amy DeLuca arrived at the barn shortly thereafter. Clearly, another one of the trainers or barn attendants called her to tell her what had happened, as well as to come get Maria and take them both to the hospital.

Her mother wrapped her in a huge bear hug, and Maria, in turn, buried her tiny face into her mom’s hair, sniffling and attempting to hold back her tears as she thought about what had happened to her father.

The time dragged, and it was when they arrived at the emergency room that they received the bad news. A doctor came out of the bowels of the hospital to speak to her mother, and she sat in the cheap, plastic chair of the waiting room, watching them intently as her mother swiped a few tears away from her hazel eyes, nodding slowly at whatever the man had told her. The doctor left shortly afterward, and her mother walked slowly back to her, grabbing her hand as she took a seat next to Maria.

All that her mother could say was, “Maria, baby. Daddy had an accident.”

“I know, Mommy,” she had nodded, squeezing her mother’s hand in comfort. “I saw it. Fury was mad.”

Amy looked down at her tow-headed child once more before attempting a weak smile. “Your dad’s not gonna be okay, baby.”

“What?”

“You remember when Sniffles went to heaven last winter?”

Maria nodded her head slowly, contemplating what her mother was telling her. Sniffles, her hamster, got sick last winter, and they buried him in the backyard after Maria wept over his lifeless body for a day.

“Daddy’s gone to heaven to be with Sniffles and your grandparents, baby.”

“Heaven?”

“He died, sweetie,” Amy wiped a stray tear from her eye as she studied her child, gripping her tiny hands tightly. “He’s not coming back.”

And Maria burst into tears. She didn’t know much, but she knew what happened when someone went to heaven. It meant they were never coming back. It meant she would never play with her daddy again. And it meant she and her mom were alone.

The event shook Maria to her core, but being so young, she recovered more so than her mother did after they laid her father to rest next to his parents in the Kentucky bluegrass of a Louisville cemetery.

* * *

Maria shook her head, dazed at the memories. It had taken years for her to finally research what had actually happened to her father. Turns out, Brian DeLuca was declared dead before he made it to the hospital that day. The cause? Massive internal bleeding from a crushed chest cavity.

When Maria began riding horses again in high school, she felt the gravity of these powerful animals every time she was on one or around them. She loved them — but she always remembered to stay on her toes, especially since her father’s demise came from an out-of-control horse who should have been easily in control.

She shuddered as she remembered witnessing the final moments of her father’s life, and she wiped away a tear that escaped from one of her bluegrass eyes without thinking twice.

“I’m sorry,” Charlie apologized, his face kind. “I didn’t mean to cause you more pain. I just wanted to let you know I am proud of you, and I know that he would be, too, if he was standing here with me today.”

“Thanks,” Maria whispered, closing here eyes and pushing back the memories.

“You’re welcome,” the older man said, patting Maria’s back awkwardly. “I’ll be seeing you around then.”

“Okay.”

“It was an honor to meet you, Maria DeLuca.”

“You, too. You, too, Charlie Guerin.”

With that, she gave the older man a curt nod before marching into the tack room, marveling over what had just happened as she placed Hope’s tack in its specific spot.

* * * * *

Later that evening, Liz, Tess and Maria were crowded together on the small couch in Liz’s apartment, sharing a bottle of wine and shooting the breeze before it got too late, as the three early-risers had to wake up early for training the next morning.

“So what happened between you and Michael today?” Liz questioned over the top of her wine glass, studying Maria carefully as she asked the thing that had been bothering her all day.

“Nothing happened, oh nosy friend,” Maria sighed.

“You sure about that?” Liz’s mouth curled into a smile as she raised an eyebrow. “You were a bit dazed there for a second when I walked up. And I know what Maria dazed looks like.”

“And what is that?”

“Your mouth was hanging open slightly, and your eyes had the look of you having just been hit over the head by a heavy object.”

“I do not look like that when I’m dazed!”

“I hate to break it to you, girlfriend,” Liz clicked her tongue, “but you do. And you definitely had that look on your face today, so there’s no denying something happened.”

“You really do,” Tess chimed in, her light laugh floating in the air, causing a scowl to form on Maria’s face. “So what happened?”

Maria groaned, rolling her eyes at the jockey. “Really, girls. Nothing did. He just said something that took me by surprise.”

“And what was that?” Liz leaned forward in interest, her brown eyes twinkling.

“He was fastening Hope’s girth, and when he got it cinched, he complimented Hope and told her she did a good job. And then I sarcastically remarked that I didn’t take him as a person who would praise a horse for something he did, and he came right back, straight-faced, and told me he never realized I thought about him.”

“And what did you say?” the curly-headed blonde’s eyebrows were raised in surprise at Michael’s question.

“I didn’t say anything because someone so rudely interrupted us.”

“Ah,” Liz responded. “I see.”

“So that was it,” Maria shrugged, taking a swig of her glass of red wine and grinning at her friends. “But something weird did happen after the workout.”

“And what was that?”

“You know the man who came to watch this morning?”

The ghost of a smile crossed Liz’s face before she nodded, the grin becoming wider. “You got to meet Charlie?”

“Charlie?” Tess asked, turning her head from Liz to Maria and back again, her eyebrows arched in question.

“You make it sound like you’ve been spending tons of time with Charlie Guerin, Lizzie Parker,” Maria stated. “Looks like you’re the one who has been keeping some things from us!”

It was Liz’s turn to shrug, and she chuckled slightly at Maria’s observation. “No, I haven’t been spending a ton of time with the man, though I think we’ll be seeing more of him in the future.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because Michael is training Hope.” From the tone of her voice, Maria automatically picked up on the implied, ‘Duh,’ at the end of her friend’s comment.

“And because Michael’s his son,” Tess added, earning an eye roll from Maria.

“Well, Charlie apparently worked with my dad back in the day,” Maria stated slowly, choosing her words carefully so she didn’t break down again like she had that morning.

“Did he?” Liz asked, curious. “I had no idea. Granted, I knew he and your dad probably ran in the same circles, but I had no idea they were friends.”

Maria inclined her head once. “They were.”

“So what did he say about your dad?”

Tears immediately formed in Maria’s eyes as she recounted the conversation, and the subsequent flashback of the last time she had seen her father alive. She sniffled once, and Liz wrapped one of her arms over Maria’s shoulders, giving her a squeeze and a reassuring smile.

After a few moments, Maria had composed herself, and she was able to utter, “That he’d be proud of me. And that Charlie wished he had been around more to help me and my mom after the accident.”

“That’s really nice of him to say,” Tess concluded, reaching across and grasping Maria’s hand in her own, giving her a comforting squeeze.

“He seemed like a really nice man.”

“He is,” Liz affirmed. “And he did a good job with Michael.”

“Girls,” Maria started, looking at her friend sternly. “You know I love you. You’re like sisters, but I’d really prefer we not bring Michael into this conversation. Do you mind?”

Liz and Tess laughed at Maria’s uncomfortableness at the mention of her former friend, wondering what was going through her friend’s head, and Liz nodded once. “That’s fine.”

“Okay,” Maria grinned. “Very good. Because I don’t want to spend much time thinking about him tonight.”

“You sure about that?”

Liz batted her eyelashes at Maria, causing her friend to let out a snort, and then peg her with one of the sofa pillows before uttering, “Uh, yeah.”

Tess was leaning back, cackling with laughter at the scene before her when she was unknowingly smacked with two sofa pillows — one from Maria and the other from Liz.

“So,” Liz raised an eyebrow again once their giggles had died down. “Tell me, then. What’s the story behind you and Courtney? Because that girl was certainly pushing your buttons this morning!”

“Homegirl has clearly overdosed on her bitchy pills,” Tess chimed in. “I don’t know if she likes anyone, but she certainly has something against Maria.”

“You don’t even have the slightest idea of how much she dislikes me,” Maria grimaced.

“Oh, I think I do,” Tess countered, her eyes twinkling. “I saw Courtney drop your jacket in a pile of manure the other day.”

Maria’s eyebrows shot up. “I was wondering how it ended up in the aisle! I remembered placing it on my hook in the tack room, and when I came back later in the day, it wasn’t there.”

“It was no accident, girl,” Tess responded. “And I’m fairly positive she was the reason your brushes went missing the other day, too.”

“She wouldn’t!”

“I’ve been keeping my eye on her, too,” Liz added in. “She’s said some funny stuff to me more recently, and she has also been slacking on some aspects of her job, as far as I’m concerned. She is getting a stern warning. More slip ups like these, and she’s gone.”

The two blondes swung their heads to the brunette in shock. “You’re seriously considering firing her?”

Liz nodded sagely. “She knows what she’s doing around horses, but if she’s going to be a petty mean girl, we can do without that.”

“Yeah, well, tell me about it,” Maria sighed. “She trapped me in the tack room the other morning to tell me to stop looking at her man like I wanted to jump him!”

“Her man?” Liz gasped.

“And you? Jump him?” Tess’ eyebrows had risen halfway up her forehead. She knew Michael and Maria had a history, but there was no way the two of them wanted to jump in bed together. Right?

Maria rolled her eyes. “Apparently, she and Michael are together. I never caught the specifics on their relationship — not that I would want to know all about it, anyway — but she is clearly possessive of him.”

“Well, she is pretty,” Tess commented offhandedly, taking a sip of her wine and observing a look she couldn’t quite identify that crossed Maria’s face at her statement. “What? She is!”

“She’s just like all those other bimbos he’s brought home over the years,” Maria finally shrugged, recognizing she was being a bitch about Michael and Courtney, but she couldn’t stop the statement as it fell out of her mouth.

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” Liz responded. “Michael and Courtney have been an item for a little while, and as far as I know, she is Michael’s first long-term girlfriend.”

Tess nodded her agreement. “Not that I knew Michael in college or anything, but from what the two of you have said, he was pretty much a playboy and didn’t spend time with the same woman two nights in a row, so this is a big deal, whether or not you want to think that.”

“And they’ve got something going on that has lasted at least a little while,” Liz responded. “Which is pretty unheard of… except with you.”

“Excuse me?” Maria’s green eyes were bright, and her expression was unreadable when she turned to Liz. “Did you just say that Michael and I had something that’s lasted for a while?”

“Not a relationship,” Liz backpedaled. “No, not that. But this tension you have going? It’s lasted a while.”

Maria sighed, running a hand through her locks.

“I actually second what Lizzie is saying here,” Tess nodded, her curls bouncing as she and Liz clinked their wine glasses together. “I mean, if I didn’t know the truth myself, I’d say there was something going on between the two of you.”

“I could have sworn that things would have gotten better once the two of you aired your grievances last year before that dinner with the Evanses…” Liz started, sighing at the memory of her two friends and their apparent war. “But clearly, that just made things worse.”

Maria shook her head, finally fessing up. “More things happened after you left, Lizzie.”

Liz and Tess’ eyes were wide, and Maria let out a bitter laugh. She had run through this scenario so many times in her head, and she wasn’t sure she could get the whole story out because she was ashamed at what happened and what she did to him. Again.

“I’m just really stupid, that’s all,” she whispered. “Not to say that he’s not because he certainly said some pretty awful things, too, but I’m particularly dumb. And there I was, thinking I was justified and in the right… and I took what he was saying and threw it back in his face while he was trying to have a civilized conversation with me… and to tell me that he still had feelings for me after all that time.”

“Why are you just telling us about this now?” Tess queried, placing a soft hand on Maria’s shoulder as Liz did the same from the other side.

“Because…” her voice cracked.

“I didn’t realize anything else had happened,” Liz confessed. “I thought the two of you working together might help straighten out your problems. I’m sorry.”

“Maybe it’s best that you both face the past now and have an actual conversation?” Tess suggested.

“I think you’re right, Tess,” Maria sighed. “I just have to find the guts to actually speak to him about it because I know I will feel even more ashamed and embarrassed at what I did to him when the conversation is over.”

“Maybe it would make you feel lighter?” Tess asked, looking to Liz for reassurance.

“That certainly could be something, Maria,” Liz chimed in. “If you want to talk about it, you know we’re here to listen.”

“Thanks, Lizzie,” Maria sighed. “But I’m keeping what happened to myself for now. I don’t think I could handle the looks you would give me when I tell you what I did and said to him that night.”

“We wouldn’t do that,” Liz said softly.

“We’re here to help you,” Tess confirmed. “And who knows? Maybe we could help you come up with a way to approach him and discuss it and move on?”

“Yeah, maybe,” Maria sighed again. “Let me think on it, girls. Or, better yet, give me more wine. Maybe I’ll drink enough to get some liquid courage going so I can speak to Michael tonight.”

Her friends chuckled at that, and Tess reached over, tipping the wine bottle into her glass and pouring the rest of its contents out.

“Well, back to the conversation at hand,” Tess jogged their memories, letting out a chortle. “After that, I can definitely see why Courtney would be threatened by you. That’s what I’m saying. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“Well, she certainly shouldn’t be,” Maria mumbled back at her friend before bringing her wine glass to her lips and chugging the rest of her glass, turning her gaze to the unopened bottle on the coffee table in front of them and contemplating if she could justify another glass.

“You’ll feel like shit in the morning,” Liz commented, reading her mind.

Maria sighed. “You’re spoiling my fun, Parker.”

“Just looking out for you, friend.”

Maria rolled her eyes. “Remind me of that the next time we go out and get drunk because you need to let off some steam. I’ll remember that you’re looking out for me then.”

“Touche.”
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"There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."
-Henry David Thoreau-

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LuckyMiss
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Hope for a Champion (M&M+CC, Adult) - Chapter 5C - 6/12

Postby LuckyMiss » Thu Jun 12, 2014 8:00 am

Happy Thursday, everyone! Hope y’all are having a great week so far. Mine has been an interesting one, and I'm simply happy to report that I'm at home and well.

As always, thanks to the lovely folks who left feedback and those of y’all who are reading along:

Carolyn: Maria’s dad’s story is pretty sad, huh? Horses are powerful animals, and it’s something Maria learned at an early age that she will never forget. You’re right: M&M do have a start of sorts, and well, we’ll see if Courtney causes any trouble for them in coming parts.

April: Dang, girl! You really ARE playing catch-up, and I’m loving the individual feedbacks for each part. Thank you! Like you, I’m not an outdoor person, and I got a lot of pleasure from making the farm into a place I’d like to spend time, being a non-outdoorsy sort. And I’m blown away that you think the scene in 3C was steamy! (If you’d only known what it took for me to actually WRITE the scene, and then the crazy about of convincing from my beta, Maria, it took for me to post the damn thing, haha.)

Chapter 3D: Hmm . . . I have to side with Michael here. Maria totally freaked out on him, which I get in a way, because she was worried that they might have made a potentially life-altering mistake together. But it fucking takes two to . . . well, you know . . . fuck.


Yeah, I side with Michael, too, though I can understand where Maria is coming from and why she might have freaked out. However, she should have said something during the day they spent together, and she shouldn’t have left him alone to his thoughts, which certainly didn’t help the situation. His reaction was understandable, but dragging this animosity on throughout the years? All I’ll say is they both have a lot of growing up to do in different ways.

Currently, yeah, Michael acts like a jerk to Maria, but she gave him every reason to. So if she thinks he's such a bad guy, she needs to remember that she sort of helped make him that way by treating him the way she did.

But at the same time, Michael needs to recognize that she is sorry for it and kind of grow up and forgive her. But that's easier said than done when someone insinuates that you'd be a loser, deadbeat dad who wouldn't take any part in your kid's life.


Exactly. To both these points. So how do they move on and get past this sticky situation? Time will tell… though I’ll warn you: They both continue to be stubborn for quite a while. Because they wouldn’t be M&M if they weren’t stubborn. Glad you’re enjoying this story so far!

Eve: Thanks! We’ll see eventually about Courtney and whatever she’s plotting — if anything — as we get to know these characters more. It’s good that Liz knows what’s happening with her employees, huh? She’s good like that.

Eva: It makes me so happy to hear you’re hooked to HFAC, and I love that you took a sneak peek at CID to read some additional chapters. ;) We’re a lot further along there than here.
This chapter was very emotional. The way she lost her dad as a young girl, marked her life for ever. But blood is thicker than water, Maria's love for horses stayed unaffected. Her dad would really be proud, that's for sure.


Eloquently put, Eva, and oh so true. She won’t forget how she lost her father or how powerful horses are, and she has big plans for herself that I think her father would be proud of. And Courtney… well, we’ll see about her, won’t we?

As always, special thanks to Maria for editing this part what feels like a lifetime ago, and to Angel for picking up the slack and editing my newer chapters!

I hope y’all enjoy this part!



Chapter 5C


It was getting late, and his eyes were feeling droopy when Michael heard it. It started off as a little tap and became more insistent when the light rapping picked up on the front door of his home on Daydream’s property. Being a simple man, he didn’t need much space, and the one-bedroom apartment suited him just fine, though a glance at his watch told him it was nearly 11 p.m., and he had no idea who would come knocking at his door at this hour of the night, especially since everyone who lived on the farm had to be up early for training the next day.

He looked over at his sleeping girlfriend, who was curled up next to him on the couch, her long, straight blonde hair askew and her expression calm, and he grinned down at her. It was a stroke of luck that she had come to work at Daydream when she did, and he enjoyed her company immensely. They had been together for nearly six months, and while the whole relationship thing was still new to him, he liked being with Courtney.

Quietly, he rose to his feet and padded over to the solid oak door, unhooking the security chain and flipping the deadbolt before creaking open the old piece of wood to find a nervous-looking Maria DeLuca on his doorstep, looking up at him nervously as she ran a shaky hand through her golden locks.

He opened the door a bit more, sticking out his head and part of his torso, curious to see why she had come to visit him so late and what she had to say to explain her presence. Clearly, this wasn’t a social visit. It never was.

“I know it’s late and all, but I wanted to talk with you,” she started, not even caring that she was babbling until she caught his dazed stare. “Did I wake you up or something?”

He shook his head, a smirk forming on his lips. “I see you’re taking a page out of my book.”

“Okay, well, here’s the thing,” she began again, ignoring his snide comment, but he cut her off, lifting one finger in front of his mouth, signaling to her to quiet down as as hissed “Shhhh” came from his well-formed lips.

“Oh,” she murmured, her spirits deflating as she realized that Courtney was probably asleep somewhere on the other side of the door. Her hand rose to her mouth involuntarily as she whispered, “Oh, God. I’m sorry. I didn’t even think about that or that she’d be here. Or about the time of night, really. I was just on my way home.”

Michael quietly stepped out of his apartment, closed the door behind him with a click, and she took a few steps back, staying within the circle of light from the front light next to his apartment, and she looked up at him with wide eyes.

“We can have this conversation some other time, Michael. I don’t want to take time away from you and Courtney.”

He shrugged and looked at her expectantly. “What did you want to talk about?”

“I just came by to talk with you about the two of us working together with Hope.”

His back stiffened before he nodded slowly.

“And I just wanted to say that I’ve done some pretty awful things to you in the past — I know,” she paused for a second, and he gave her a tiny motion to continue. “It’s just… I wanted to say I know we’re going to be working closely together for the foreseeable future, and I wanted to apologize for being such a bitch to you.”

A skeptical eyebrow rose slightly, but his expression was unchanging.

“I was wrong, Michael, and I cannot apologize enough,” she sighed, gazing up at him with pleading eyes. “I was wrong to leave you alone for a month after we spent that day together. And then I was wrong, again, for assuming the worst of you last year and thinking all you wanted was a roll in the hay. You cannot know how many times I’ve kicked myself when I have thought back to that night and what I said and did.”

He held his hand toward her, effectively cutting her off. “I get it.”

“Do you?”

“You feel bad about what happened between the two of us, especially since we’re going to be in close quarters daily from here on out, and you want back in my good graces.”

Maria rolled her eyes. “You’ve always been so eloquent.”

“Are you saying that wasn’t what you were attempting to get out?” he smirked back at her.

She crossed her arms and frowned at him. Of course, he wasn’t going to make this easy. “I was an asshole, okay? I know that now. I treated you horribly. Not once, but several times. And I realize that things can’t be the same between us, but I would at least like for us to be civil toward one another. And that is why I came knocking tonight. So can you accept that, or am I barking up the wrong tree?”

“I can accept that,” he drawled cautiously, choosing his words carefully.

“Okay, good.”

“Fine.”

“Great,” she responded, exasperated. “That’s all I wanted, so I’ll be going.”

She took one final look at him before pivoting toward her apartment, which wasn’t too far away from Michael’s since they all lived in the same building on the farm. She took five steps in that direction before he cleared his throat, and she paused, turning to face him once again and studying his features as he caught her wandering eyes with his.

“This doesn’t mean we’re going to be friends, though.”

She didn’t know what to say to him. She didn’t come here to make amends and for things to suddenly go back to the way they had been four years ago. She sighed before stating, “I didn’t expect that.”

“You’ve been a self-centered brat and a shitty friend, as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

She nodded her head, understanding immediately as she blinked back the tears that had unknowingly sprung to her eyes with his harsh words. Every word was true, and she had no right to be upset by them: He was finally venting his frustration at her. He deserved this. And they deserved a second shot at being friends — or something that passed as civility between the two of them. “I understand why you wouldn’t want to forgive me or give me another chance, but since we are going to be working together, I wanted to apologize and let you know where I stood.”

“Uh huh.”

“I’ve done a lot of thinking, especially since Liz has put the two of us together as a team for training Hope,” she started again, taking a few steps back into his direction so they were both now standing in the faint circle of light. She met his amber orbs before speaking again, “She has faith in us, Michael, and I don’t want to let her down.”

“And you just realized this now?”

Maria scowled at him. “She just put the two of us together this morning, Michael! And I’ve had other things on my mind. I’m not a complete idiot.”

He chuckled, running his deft fingers over an eyebrow.

“But anyway… If nothing else, I’d love to make it up to you since I was such a jerk.”

“Make it up to me?” he choked out. “You do realize how easily that could be misconstrued, right?”

She blinked owlishly, shooting him a quizzical look. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, c’mon, Maria! You aren’t that naive!”

Her eyes widened when she realized what she had implied, and she returned in a small voice, “Sorry.”

He shrugged awkwardly, letting out a bark of a laugh as his gaze wandered around their surroundings before returning his attention to her. “I suppose this is where I should probably apologize, too.”

She held up her hands, cutting him off. “No. No, that’s not what I came here for, Michael.”

“Well, I’m gonna do it anyway.”

“No!” she cried indignantly, keeping her voice as low as she could before hissing out, “This was me stepping up. Not you. … It needed it to be me this time, especially since I’m the one who is the main reason for our falling out.”

“Well, be that as it may, I still said some pretty awful things to you, too,” he drawled.

“I deserved them,” she shrugged his statement off.

“Look, Maria,” he started, looking down at her as her eyes darted around, refusing to meet his or accept his upcoming apology. “I was a jerk, too. Was I justified? Probably. But to say that I fantasized about the things you did with me when I was lonely was taking it a little far.”

“It’s not too far if it’s the truth,” she challenged, unsure why she was being so obstinate toward him. She raised her eyebrows for a second before shaking her head and laughing at herself, mumbling, “Not that it’s the truth anymore. And not that I would want to know if it was.”

“Well, either way, I’m sure that isn’t something a girl wants to hear.”

She looked down at her feet as her cheeks burned, recalling his tone when he had initially said that to her a year earlier. “No, not particularly.”

“So, Maria DeLuca, will you accept my apology?”

She turned her attention from her feet to his face and saw the earnestness there. “Sure. I’ll accept it as long as you accept mine, and we can move forward with our lives, working together, and hopefully, no longer being the banes of each other’s existence. How about that, Michael Guerin?”

And with that, she stuck out her hand. “So, if nothing else, truce?”

He smirked, then let out a small laugh at her gesture and reached out, grasping her smaller palm in his before shaking it slightly. “Truce, though you’ve got a long way to get back in my good graces as a friend.”

She shrugged, finally deciding to wink back at him. “Got it.”

He opened his mouth to speak again but was interrupted by the creaking of the door opening again.

“Michael?” a sleepy voice asked, and shortly after, a blonde head poked out of the opening. Courtney’s blue eyes were full of sleep, and she blinked a few times before her focus snapped to Maria in the hallway talking to her boyfriend. She surveyed the situation unfolding before her before asking, “What are you doing here?”

Maria half-smiled at the other blonde sheepishly. “I just had something to say to Michael, but I’m about to head out since we all have an early morning.”

“Thanks,” Michael nodded.

“And sorry to wake you up,” Maria responded again, looking at both of them before nodding her head once, then turning on her heel to trot to the door of her apartment, leaving the two of them standing in the orangey light outside his door.

Michael was the first to move, swinging open the door and taking a few steps inside before plopping down on the couch.

“What was that about?” Courtney asked when Michael followed her back into the apartment, her arms crossed across her chest and her eyes blazing.

“Maria wanted to apologize for something that happened between us a while ago,” Michael stated, unsure what else to say without getting into the nitty gritty details with his girlfriend because he knew the details would create some fireworks.

“She wanted to apologize? At this time of night?” she raised a skeptical eyebrow.

Michael shrugged.

“That girl’s got a lot of nerve!” Courtney exclaimed, now fully awake.

“What?” Michael asked, confused by Courtney’s outburst as he watched his girlfriend begin to pace, her normally pretty face marred with a scowl as her moves became more frantic, her hands animating her voice as she spoke to him.

“She came here so late! And she knew I was here! How dare she!”

“Court,” Michael sighed. “I think you’re blowing this thing completely out of proportion. She came to apologize. That’s all.”

“What in the world would she have to apologize for? The two of you aren’t even friends.”

Michael paused for a moment before speaking again, “We were a long time ago.”

Courtney’s eyebrows shot up at the statement. “You used to be friends? And you’re working together now but have managed to avoid one another for however long?”

He nodded his head once, his eyes following Courtney as she continued her pacing in front of the couch.

“So what happened?”

“It’s a long story, Court, and it’s one that doesn’t concern you.”

“So you can’t say there wasn’t something there between the two of you at one point.”

Michael groaned, frustrated that Courtney picked up on the tension between Maria and him in the past, putting two and two together. She was observant, and she was clearly assuming there was a greater history between the two former friends than she initially surmised. “Courtney.”

“And she’s coming to your apartment at all hours! Who can tell if she’s going to continue doing that? And what if she goes after you? What will you do then?”

Michael reached his arms out, his hands landing on his girlfriend’s shoulders and effectively stopping her pacing. He smirked before stating, “I sincerely doubt she’ll be ‘going after me,’ as you put it. The girl can’t stand me in that way, Courtney, as proven from not one, but by the several times she has run out on me. I’m over it. She came to tell me she was over it. And you need to get over it, too, because Maria and I are going to be working in close quarters with Hope, whether or not you like it.”

Her eyebrows rose, and her blue eyes were blazing. “Really? So that’s just how it is, and I’m going to have to deal with it?”

“I didn’t say it that way, and you know it!”

“I’m just going to head out,” she stated, tossing her thumb in the direction of the front door as she looked around the room for her coat and her purse. Locating them on an old, floral print chair next to the television set, she headed across the room and swept them up in her arms in one smooth motion before turning back to a confused-looking Michael. “I see the way things are. I really like you, Michael, but I don’t want this situation with Maria to become more than you think it is. I wish you could understand that.”

He opened his mouth to speak again, rising to his feet from the couch, but she held up her hand, stopping him effectively before crossing the room, leaning forward, and dropping a peck on his cheek. “Goodnight, Michael.”

And with that, she slipped out the door, leaving him standing in the middle of his living room, stunned at the events of the evening.

* * * * *

Maria was in the middle of brushing her teeth when she heard a light knocking on the door. Turning slowly, she spotted the time on the multi-colored clock she was given for graduation from her mother hanging on the middle of the wall, and she groaned. It was 11:30, and someone was at her door. They had better have a good explanation for this, she thought to herself before spitting out the toothpaste, scooping a handful of water in her palm and sipping it, swishing the cool water around in her mouth before spitting it back out into the sink, finally turning off the faucet and looking at her reflection.

When she had gotten home a while ago, she had pulled her blonde curls into a messy bun on the top of her head, securing loose pieces with a pink headband. She washed her face immediately after getting back in, and she was now in her pink polka dot pajama set, more than ready to go to sleep after this emotionally draining day.

She made her way to the front door, ignoring the knocks, and unlocked it swiftly, swinging it open to discover Courtney Banks standing on the other side, fire in her eyes.

“Courtney?” she asked warily. “Are you okay?”

The other girl scowled at her. “Am I okay? You’re seriously asking me that?”

“Umm, yes,” Maria started, unsure why the other groom was knocking on her door at this late hour. “Was there something I could do for you? I’m really sorry that I woke you up earlier. That was never my intention.”

“No,” the taller blonde spat out. “It was just your intention to try to patch things up with my boyfriend right beneath my nose!”

“Courtney, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know about you, Maria DeLuca,” the other girl hissed. “I know all the things you did to Michael. And I know that you want him back, so there’s no use in playing coy with me.”

Maria let out a short laugh, unsure how to take Courtney’s tirade. Her wanting Michael back? That made it sound like she had him in the first place, which was something that never happened. Courtney was clearly misunderstanding what happened tonight, and she wanted to set the record straight with the other girl because she really didn’t want there to be more tension in the barn than was necessary.

“You’re laughing at this? Really, bitch?”

Maria held up her hands. “Stop, Courtney. It’s late, and this is a serious conversation to be having on a doorstep, of all places.”

“And yet, you can come to Michael’s and have a similar conversation?”

Maria sighed, nervously crossing her arms and studying the taller girl. Courtney had never been one of her favorite people at the barn, but she wanted to give the other girl the benefit of the doubt. Judging from her conversation with Tess and Liz this evening, Courtney was out to get her, and the other girl clearly was intimidated by Maria’s previous relationship with Michael, no matter how horribly it ended or how the two of them had now agreed to move forward as friendly acquaintances.

“I’m sorry about that earlier tonight,” Maria started. “I really am. I didn’t mean to wake you or to disturb the peace of your relationship. The truth is, I wanted to start on a new foot with Michael, especially since we are working together with Hope and her training, and I finally had the courage to go speak with him about it and to try to right some of the wrongs that I did to him in the past.”

Courtney’s eyebrows rose slightly, and she motioned for Maria to continue.

“I didn’t mean to intrude upon your relationship, and I won’t be making any more midnight calls. Okay?”

“Okay,” the other girl agreed slowly, anger still in her voice. “Just know that I’ll be watching you. And if you try something with him or attempt to make him yours again, you’ll force me to do something drastic. And you don’t want me to do that.”

“Trust me, Courtney,” Maria said lightly. “You don’t have to worry about that. I won’t be falling down the Michael Guerin rabbit hole anytime soon. So accept my apology, and let’s move forward from here.”

“Sure,” Courtney batted her eyelashes at Maria, staring down at the shorter girl and not feeling much better about the situation. “But I just want you to know, you may have fooled Michael into believing the sweet, innocent Maria act, but I certainly am not falling for it.”

Maria blinked a few times, taking in what the other girl had just spouted off, finally deciding to ignore her final statement before asking, “Is there anything else I can do for you?” Maria queried.

“Nope,” Courtney shook her head, letting her long hair fly wildly around her shoulders. “I got what I came here to get.”

Then Courtney turned suddenly, storming off into the night.

“Okay, bye,” Maria responded, watching as the taller groom strode away from her door toward her car, then she shook her head. What in the world was going on?

When Courtney pulled out of the small parking lot, Maria closed the front door, locking it behind her, and made her way into her bedroom, groaning as she flopped down on her pillowtop mattress, settling in instantly.

She laid in bed for a long time, thinking over the conversations she’d had that day and re-running them through her mind until she finally fell asleep; the evening’s conversations the farthest thing from her mind as she dreamed of racing the wind.
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"There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."
-Henry David Thoreau-

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LuckyMiss
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Hope for a Champion (M&M+CC, Adult) - Chapter 6A - 6/20

Postby LuckyMiss » Fri Jun 20, 2014 3:24 pm

Happy Friday afternoon, y’all! Popping in this afternoon to drop off a new part for y’all, and I hope y’all have a fantastic weekend!

As always, thanks to the lovely folks who left feedback and those of y’all who are reading along:

Eva: Ah! Got it. Wow. I appreciate you leaving some feedback over here even though you’ve caught up on the story at CID… that makes me really happy!

Michael made Maria crowl in her knees during her apology. It was funny and serious at the same time. Although the timing could've been better (or wait, maybe, it was a good one considering it provoked our lovely Courtney  ), it was good that Maria took the first step towards a truce. Only then they can work together as a team.


Michael didn’t make it easy on Maria, and I’m happy to hear you thought it was funny and serious and that the timing could have been better. Like you, I agree that Maria taking the first step was pretty big, and hopefully, this is the start of a new M&M.

Eve: Courtney isn’t one to be reckoned with, huh? She’s not a fan of Maria, and she definitely feels threatened, especially now that Michael and Maria are working closely together with Hope. We’ll see if she spies on them and causes problems or not. How far will she go?

Carolyn: Thanks!

April: Stubborn M&M is my MO, too, so as long as you’re along for the ride and you’ve been forewarned, you should be good to go. I really appreciate the thoughtful feedback for all the chapters. It’s really fun reading what you think about what’s happening.

Liz and Maria really do have a great friendship. I have a lot of fun writing those scenes because everybody needs a good friend every once in a while, and they’re super fun to explore to get to know both characters on another level. So you should try it out with a friendship scene and see what happens. :)

Okay, I'm a Michael-worshipper pretty much no matter what, but when he said to Maria, "Who the hell would want to date you?" I felt like punching him square in the face! As you said, they both have a lot of growing up to do, and when he said that, that was just a prime example of how immature he can be. That's just mean. And then he goes on to say that she's an "obvious mess"? Oh, that just pisses me off. I'm glad Maria let him have it there. He deserved it.


Michael really does say some inflammatory things and IS a piece of work, huh? Yes, him saying that and the way he acts and speaks about Maria is just one example of how immature he can be… and Maria’s exactly the same way, so when the two of them bump heads, sparks fly. And not always in a good way.

But again, I love it! The fact that, as of right now at least, nothing is stopping Michael and Maria from being together except for Michael and Maria themselves? That's the best. 


Isn’t that the truth? We’ll see in the future if they’re the only thing stopping them from being together or if other factors are added in… but they’re both pretty thickheaded and stubborn, especially when it comes to the other.

Michael and Maria are both searching for a balance, and him coming back to the stable to find her is a part of this, even though it’s unconscious. Maria turns to the horses because she knows they won’t judge her… and Michael picked a hell of a time to be eavesdropping, though I will agree with you that it’s a good thing he listened in and perhaps a good thing that he’s starting to feel a little jealousy, too. Will he get his head out of his ass? Wellll…

I totally did NOT expect them to jump each other's bones like this again (in the breeding barn--classic), but it's true to their characters. They just act without thinking sometimes. But then sometimes that can lead to over-thinking, which is what Maria seemed to do here. First of all . . . willpower. Damn. I would have never had the willpower to stop things where she did. Second . . . I get that she was irked that Michael was joking about their past, but he really was just joking. And because she reacted poorly to that, then he freaked out, too, got defensive, and said more stuff that he probably didn't really mean. It's like an endless cycle of miscommunication and misunderstandings.


Surprise! The temptation to just give in for the moment was overpowered, and I agree… if I’d been in Maria’s shoes, I don’t know if I would have had the willpower to stop. However, Maria did, and she’s oversensitive about everything Michael, including him clearly joking. And then the cycle continues, as you said so eloquently.

Yes, it was a good thing they stopped themselves this time around, especially now that they’re co-workers. True, they both said and did some things they might regret… but they didn’t go all the way and create another blunder like the did the first time, especially since neither is ready for that. (Let’s be real: They might not be for a while.)

I’m glad you’re enjoying this story of mine, and I’m honored that you’ve joined us for the journey.


As always, special thanks to Maria for editing this part what feels like a lifetime ago, and to Angel for picking up the slack and editing my newer chapters!

I hope y’all enjoy this part!


Chapter 6A



NINE MONTHS LATER.

It was a frigid January morning, and Maria did her best to hide the chill bumps forming on her skin by frantically rubbing her hands up and down on her arms as she rolled out of bed. It had been a crazy year, and she was beyond excited that her favorite horse was now officially of racing age.

All racehorses’ official birthdays were January 1, so as of last week, Hope turned two. That meant they were going to be ramping up her training to prepare her for her first race this spring, and Maria could not wait.

For the last nine months, they had been working with Hope daily, building up her muscles so she would be ready for her 2-year-old racing season and being ridden on the track at top speeds for the first time.

Liz was impressed by the progress that Hope was making. The filly had gotten used to the feel of the bridle, saddle, and girth easily; more so than Romance and Spectacular, even though Spectacular was closing in on her progress. Spectacular was getting more comfortable by the day, and soon enough, he would be able to be ridden. And even sooner, they were going to put an exercise rider on Hope to start her race training, and Maria was thrilled at this prospect, even though she was terrified that she wouldn’t be the one chosen. She had spent several hours trying to figure out how to bring this up to Michael or Liz, but she chose to keep it close to her heart in case the two of them decided she wasn’t the best person to ride Hope. It would break her heart, but she’d give up that part of her dream if they thought someone else was a better fit for her favorite filly.

Actually, it was that very morning that Liz and Michael wanted Hope to be ridden on the track for the first time.

During the last part of the year, Maria and Michael worked with Hope by lunging her in an outdoor ring built for this purpose alone, some days with a rider and other days without. When Maria wasn’t on Hope’s back, she was watching from the sidelines, studying Michael’s moves with the filly. Every morning, Maria awoke early to go down to the barn. She then groomed all her horses, including Hope, and then wrapped Hope’s legs in polo wraps — a form of protection for the filly — before her daily lunging and placed a specialty lunge cavesson on Hope’s head, where the lunge line could be clipped easily and safely. Once Hope was prepared and saddled up, Maria and Hope met Michael in the outdoor ring.

Michael always stood in the center of the ring, holding the lunge rein in his left hand and the lunge whip in his right before swapping directions and hands with Hope halfway through their workout. She moved around him easily in wide circles on her lunge line every morning, responding to his commands. Michael controlled Hope’s speed and pace with voice aids, occasionally clicking his tongue instead of using verbal commands like “Stand,” “Walk on,” “Trot on,” “Canter,” “Steady,” and “Whoa.” Whenever Michael wanted Hope to speed up, he asked for more movement by bringing the rein slightly forward and bringing the whip closer Hope’s hindquarters. To slow her down, he brought the rein back and pointed the whip down, bringing it away from Hope. And at the end of every workout, Michael asked Hope to slow down, pointing the whip in front of her and approaching her slowly, praising her for her hard work that day. While the filly wasn’t a fan of the whip, she responded well to Michael’s commands and signals, only shying a few times during her initial lunging experiences.

After Hope was finished lunging, Maria always gave her a quick bath, and then fed her breakfast in her stall before meeting with Michael to discuss that morning’s progress.

Not only did they spend time together talking about Hope and her training experience, but they also spent hours upon hours with Hope on the trails, leading her on walks and jogs through the countryside. It had become a daily ritual for Michael and Maria to both saddle up one of their favorite horses — Ghost for Maria and Black Wind for Michael — and then walk, trot, canter and gallop Hope around the area by leading her with their two horses. The filly was building up a significant amount of muscle and responded well to both their voices and commands.

However, Hope hadn’t encountered a rider until the previous August, and it took some convincing to get Maria to climb on the filly’s back. Not that Maria didn’t trust Hope, because she did, but because she was unsure how the filly would react and didn’t want to be bucked off her favorite horse the first time she put her feet in the stirrups.

She shook her head, remembering the way Michael tried to convince her and their ensuing conversation.

* * *

They were standing in the stable yard, and the tension between them was thick enough to be cut with a knife. Maria held the reins of Hope’s bridle, and she stared at Michael in disbelief, fighting the urge to scream or stomp her foot dramatically at the question he casually posed. While the two of them had called a truce, they worked hard on being civil toward one another.

“You’re asking me to do
what?”

“All I need you to do is put your weight on her back for a second,” he explained calmly, crossing his arms and looking at her pointedly as if what he was asking was the easiest thing in the world.

“And I’m supposed to do this how?” she hissed. “Mount her, then hop off before she notices anything is awry?”

He sighed audibly, running a hand through his shorter hair. He had taken a hint from the horse, and it was growing out after he buzzed it during the sweltering Kentucky summer. The buzz cut hadn’t done much for Maria, but then again, she wasn’t Michael’s girlfriend and that was not her concern. “Maria.”

“Michael,” she returned, crossing her arms across her chest. “What you’re suggesting is liable to kill me.”

“This is Hope we’re talking about!”

“Yeah!” Maria acknowledged. “She’s a yearling who has never had a person sit on her back. Let’s think about how awesome that’s going to be for me when she realizes there’s an extra hundred pounds resting on her and that she doesn’t like it.”

“This is Hope,” he shook his head, biting back a groan at Maria’s mulishness. “She knows you. Just go slowly.”

“I swear,” she moaned, conceding. “You’re going to get me killed one of these days.”

“Hey,” he held up his hands. “You’re the one who dreams of becoming a jockey. This is part of your job.”

“Yeah, and actually getting a horse to the point where they don’t mind someone on their back is yours, trainer, so excuse me if I don’t 100% trust you with my life.”

“Stop getting your panties in a twist!”

“My panties are none of your business, Michael Guerin!” she hissed before mumbling to herself, “And they certainly wouldn’t be… even if I was wearing panties.”

Michael let out a bark of laughter, and she narrowed her eyes at him as her face burned red, realizing he heard the second portion of her comment.
Why in the world had she even said that?

“Listen, buddy,” she retorted, stretching out a small hand and poking his broad chest with one of her deft fingers, looking up at him in annoyance. “You have no right to be talking about my lingerie. You lost that right a long time ago. Not that you ever really had that right to begin with.”

His gaze immediately flickered to her riding pants, and she squirmed under his gaze as he studied her for a long moment, his eyes raking over her legs, up to her belly, pausing on her breasts and then raising his amber eyes to meet her flustered bluegrass ones as a lopsided grin slowly formed on his full lips.

“You think you’re sooooo funny,” she said with a roll of her eyes, dismissing the long-buried rush of attraction she felt under his gaze.

“I’m a guy, Maria,” he shrugged. “Sue me.”

“You know, I don’t think you’re acting very professional now. And I don’t think your girlfriend would like to know you were checking out some other chick.”

“You were the one who mentioned lingerie!”

“No,” she started. “But you were the one who mentioned panties.”

“Semantics,” he shrugged. “You took it to another level.”

“Fine, whatever!”

“Fine!”

She huffed, uncrossing her arms and looked at him for a moment before nodding to herself. “So are you gonna help me up?”

His chin bobbed once as he crossed the small space between them and patted Hope’s shoulder. “This is gonna be a bit different, girl,” he told the horse before looking at Maria expectantly. “You ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be. And if you so much as touch my ass, buddy, I’m screaming. This truce we have going is fine and dandy, but if I even feel like you’re staring the wrong way at me,” she paused, looking up at Michael under her eyelashes before adding, “Again, I won’t be responsible for my actions.”

As Michael smirked down at her, she shifted, leaning forward to stroke the filly’s neck, giving up on her train of thought and speaking in a low voice to the horse she was about to climb on top of. “Hope, this is Maria. I’m about to do something new and exciting, and I want you to stay calm, girlie. You hear me? Calm.”

Michael didn’t respond to the petite woman, and focused on the interaction between her and the filly instead, and he interlaced his fingers, forming his hands into a step for Maria’s booted foot as he observed the unique relationship between Maria and Hope.

Hope whickered softly, craning her head around to see Maria and Michael standing by her side.

“We’re going to go really slowly, okay?” Maria stated to the horse, her eyes never leaving the filly’s big, brown ones.

Maria lifted her left foot into Michael’s waiting hands, and he boosted her up slowly, never taking his eyes off her. Maria first balanced her weight on her hands on the center of the saddle, which was firmly attached to Hope’s back by the girth, and her legs hung down one side of the horse. Hope snorted, unsure what was going on, so Maria started speaking to her again as Michael moved his hands to her tiny waist, holding her steady and keeping her upright as she assisted the horse in adjusting to the weight on her back.

“I know this is strange, girlie, but this is what it’s gonna take for you to run like the wind.”

“And it’ll be fun for you,” Michael added in, holding Maria steady at her waist as she shifted her weight a little more and attempted to swing one of her dangling legs over the horse’s back to the waiting stirrup on the other side. It took a few tries and Hope shifting her weight back and forth before Maria had situated both of her booted feet into the saddle’s stirrups and rested in the saddle as lightly as she possibly could.

Hope turned her head once again, seeing Maria seated on her back, and she snorted, dancing back and forth next to Michael.

“What do you think, Hope?” Maria asked the horse, stroking her midnight black mane and scratching her coat as she leaned forward to position herself over the horse’s neck. “This isn’t too bad, huh?”

Hope snorted, and Michael laughed from his position at her side, petting the filly’s neck.

“Well, you’ll get used to it,” she comforted the horse. “This is just the first step in your road to fame, girl. And the good thing for you is that you won’t be ridden by anyone much heavier than me, so it’s not too much of a load to bear.”

“And we’ll be here the entire way.”

“You always sound so damn convincing when you’re not being an asshole,” Maria observed, swinging her leg over Hope’s back and slowly dismounting the filly, pleased with their first experiment in adding weight for Hope to carry didn’t result in disaster. The next test would be her walking, then running, with a person on her back, but that wouldn’t happen for a while now.

“Maybe it’s because I’m not an asshole?” he asked, his eyes twinkling.

“Nah, that can’t be it,” she returned, smirking as her eyes meeting his in merriment.

* * *

This morning was a special one, so she had awoken earlier than normal, around four a.m. As soon as she had time to yank on her jeans, she ran out the door, grabbing an apple on the way out and trotting across the stable yard as quietly as possible. Since it was still early in the year, there wasn’t too much activity that early in the morning, and she slipped into the training barn, where Hope now lived, unnoticed.

She made her way down the aisle, pushing aside an errant brush bucket before arriving in front of Hope’s wooden stall. The filly, who had grown into her gangly legs during the last six months, greeted her with a normal whicker and whinny, bobbing her head up and down, clearly excited for the morning, too.

“Hey girl,” Maria crooned as she let herself in the stall. “Are you excited about today?”

Hope bobbed her head, and Maria giggled.

“Yeah, so am I. Let’s get you ready,” she said as she clipped the lead rope on Hope’s halter and led her out of the stall to the open stall where she groomed and tacked Hope up everyday. “You’ve got to be even more beautiful than you already are now for this morning’s workout, Hope. It’s going to be a big one!”

She was finished early, and Hope’s coat shone under the early morning light as the filly danced lightly on her feet as Maria led her back to her stall for the time being.

“Liz hasn’t told us who is going to be riding you, girl, but I really want to be your jockey. I really do. I’m not sure if Liz knows that, though, but I mean, it’s obvious.”

Hope nodded her agreement.

“Shh, be still now,” Maria whispered to the gray filly as she stroked her mane. “I’m just going to make sure that you know what’s about to happen, so don’t do anything unusual. We’ve already done this a lot before, so it shouldn’t come as a shock to you.”

Maria placed one foot in the stirrup and swung her other leg over the filly’s back in a smooth motion. Hope jumped at the added weight, but she soon relaxed when Maria spoke to her.

Maria leaned forward in the slim racing saddle, crouching in jockey position. “This is what it’s gonna be like,” she mumbled to the filly below her, whose ears were standing up.

* * * * *

“Michael!” Liz flagged him down immediately as he entered through the large, sliding, wooden doors of the training stable and made his way down the aisle to meet his boss, who was waving her hand crazily in his direction in a successful attempt to capture his attention.

“Liz?”

“We need to talk,” the petite brunette told him, giving him an appraising look before continuing. “We’ve needed to speak about Hope’s rider for quite some time now, and I wanted to sit down with you and talk this over before proceeding, especially since this morning is going to be her first day out on the track with one. Nothing like waiting ’til the last minute to announce our decision, huh? Or even discuss it, really.”

Michael nodded mutely to Liz’s statement and followed her into her tiny office, closing the cedar door behind him and settling into one of the leather chairs across from her desk.

“So what are you thinking?” he asked, genuinely curious.

Liz clasped her hands together and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her antique desk. “I know it’s been on the down low, but Kyle has been working with Maria for the last year and a half.”

Michael raised his eyebrows. He knew this; hell, everyone who worked at Daydream knew that the Texan jockey was working with his former friend on her riding skills because she wanted to become a jockey. For as brazen as Maria was with her opinions and words, it surprised him that she hadn’t found her voice to express to Liz that she wanted to be Hope’s jockey. He assumed she was hoping Liz would hear about her progress through the grapevine and take a chance on her and her abilities when the time came for Hope’s rider to be announced.

“That’s old news, Liz,” Michael sighed, mimicking Liz’s actions by bringing his palms together, settling his elbows on his knees, then lowering his head to rest on his conjoined hands.

“Have you seen her?”

“Not with Kyle. Only on Hope during our training sessions,” he shrugged. Ever since he and Maria had buried the hatchet nearly a year ago, they had both gone out of their way to be amicable to the other, especially since the two were working together with Hope, and both wanted the best for the filly. However, he never got the opportunity to see her riding with Kyle, even though he knew they were going out on the trails most afternoons after both finished up their duties around the stables. Somehow, sneaking out and watching her working on her riding skills with Kyle felt like an invasion of her privacy, and he didn’t want to tread anywhere near that line these days.

“She looks good,” Liz nodded, intentionally leaving her statement vague.

He grunted at Liz’s observation, unsure how to respond. Maria did look good, but since he hadn’t seen her riding in a professional environment, he was cautious to agree or disagree with his boss and friend.

“Kyle told me about one of their last training rides out on the trails, and I staked it out, watching them working the horses together,” Liz admitted. “They work well together.”

“Do they?” he asked gruffly, unsure why Liz was telling him this information.

Liz rolled her eyes at his tone. “What I’m trying to tell you, Michael, is that I think Maria is exactly the person we need riding Hope.”

“And you couldn’t have just spit it out when you dragged me in here in the first place?”

“It was more fun to drag it out,” she said with laughter in her voice. “You’ve really gotta loosen up when it comes to Maria, Michael. I know a lot has transpired between the two of you during the past five years or so, but you’re going to be working closely as we train Hope now, and I would hate for any longstanding feuds or quarrels to affect the filly’s chances.”

Michael crossed his arms, studying Liz as he rolled his eyes at her statement. “We made up, Liz. We’re fine. And besides, you know as well as I do that I’m not the problem here.”

“You’re not?” she guffawed.

He sighed. “Okay. So maybe I’m a small part of it, but that’s not the point.”

“And the point is?” Liz raised an eyebrow.

“We’re both to blame for what happened and what happened afterward,” he sighed, scratching his eyebrow nervously as he studied his boss, choosing his next words carefully. “We aren’t friends anymore, but we’re working at being civil toward one another,” he started, holding up his hand as he noticed Liz about to open her mouth to say something. “And that’s fine. Trust me. The thing is, are you sure that putting us together like this is really the best idea?”

“For you? For Maria? Or for Hope?”

Michael shrugged, unsure how to answer her question, even though he knew she was going to answer it for him.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Liz stated pointedly, “the only one we need to be worrying about here is Hope. I appreciate that you and Maria took the time to sort out your differences when you started working with Hope.” she paused, looking at Michael pointedly before continuing. “But, in my opinion, the two of you need to continue working on resolving this rift. Sure, you’ve both come a long way, but I think the two of you could actually become friends again, if that’s what you want. I would hate for something to happen to negatively affect the filly and all the progress she has made during the last year.”

“Fine.”

“You don’t sound happy about that.”

Michael narrowed her eyes at her. “Parker, I cannot count the amount of times you’ve told me to suck it up and deal with this thing between me and Maria. I get it. Really, I do.”

“And yet, you’re resisting,” Liz chimed in, the ghost of a smile crossing her lips. She had an idea of what was happening here, but she didn’t want to push it too far. “I know you, Michael Guerin. We’ve been friends for a long time. And I have a feeling that whatever happened between the two of you all that time ago… and then what happened last year is unfinished business, even if the two of you did talk it out and come to a truce, of sorts. And that is driving you crazy.”

“It’s not about that!”

“Then what in the world is it about?”

“Being friends…” his voice droned off. “That’s the problem.”

“Because?”

“Just because,” and with that, Michael crossed his arms in front of his chest and stared at the accolades decorating the wall.

Liz knew the conversation was over at that point, and she conceded, not wanting to push her friend too far even though she knew she could find someone who could easily do that for him. She wasn’t sure if it was the best idea, but she was moving forward with it, consequences be damned.

“So since you’re Hope’s trainer, I’m commanding you to go find Maria, and tell her the good news,” Liz stated with a wink and a giggle.

His brows lifted, and he gave her a wary look. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather do that yourself?”

Liz shook her head, grinning slightly at his nervous demeanor. “This is something a trainer would tell a rider, so it’s up to you.”

He nodded slowly at her, gathering his legs and standing slowly, stretching his arms in front of his chest before turning to walk out of the office and finding Maria.

“And Michael?”

He turned, bobbing his head once lightly to let her know he was listening.

“I saw her in Hope’s stall on my way in,” Liz’s eyes twinkled as she spoke, clearly knowing something he was currently unaware of. “Good luck!”

He grumbled as he turned and headed out the door, then down the aisle to find Maria hanging out with her favorite horse, no doubt.
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"There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."
-Henry David Thoreau-

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Hope for a Champion (M&M+CC, Adult) - Chapter 6B - 7/10

Postby LuckyMiss » Thu Jul 10, 2014 12:29 pm

Happy Thursday afternoon, y’all! How’s it going? Life has been a bit hectic over here, but I’m happy to be back with another part and get back on the ball with posting this story.

As always, thanks to the lovely folks who left feedback and those of y’all who are reading along:

Eva: Yes, Maria is getting the chance of her life! And you’re right on the money about Liz being a good friend and seeing the potential in her staff AND friends. Her heart’s in the right place, even if she might be a bit stuck in some opinions. Especially those about bringing M&M back together.

Carolyn: Oh, Michael. He very well might be thinking of that moment, and Maria might be, as well, but with such a different reaction! Glad you enjoyed the last part!


As always, special thanks to Maria for editing this part what feels like a lifetime ago, and to Angel for picking up the slack and editing my newer chapters!

I hope y’all enjoy this part!


Chapter 6B


A few moments later, Michael found Maria exactly where Liz had suggested she would be, and an oddly amused grin formed on his lips until the reality of the situation hit him. Maria was perched on top of Hope’s back, tilted forward over the filly’s withers as she “rode” her in the stall while whispering in the horse’s ear, unaware that he was watching her. In fact, she didn’t realize anything was amiss until he cleared his throat.

Her eyes darted to the stall door, catching Michael’s immediately, and seconds later, a guilty look crossed her porcelain face, her bluegrass orbs immediately shifting to the ground to stare at anything but him. She knew she was in trouble.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he asked sternly, opening the door and stepping inside the wooden box that Hope called home.

“I was just… uh… getting her used to having weight on her back.”

“We’ve already done that, Maria,” his tone rose as he spoke, upset about Maria’s irresponsibility of mounting Hope in her stall. “And either way, why would you be doing that in her stall? You know it’s dangerous to do this here!”

“I just wanted her to be ready for this morning, Michael! Chill out!”

“I will not chill out, Maria,” he hissed, approaching Hope slowly and setting a calming hand on the filly’s neck before looking up at the blonde atop the gray horse. “You could have gotten hurt! What in the world were you thinking?”

She shrunk back a little at his glare, but then remembered this was Michael she was dealing with, and she jutted her chin out defiantly before stating calmly, “This is Hope we’re talking about, Michael!”

“Hope is a horse, Maria, and as much as you’d like to think that she wouldn’t hurt you…”

“That’s a load of crap!”

He raised an eyebrow in challenge, staring her down. “A load of crap? What would have happened if she spooked, Maria? Do you think Hope would remember you were on her back and to not buck because of this, that, or the other? She’s a horse! And while she’s intelligent, I can assure you that if she were to be scared, things would not end well for you. God! You aren’t even wearing a helmet!”

Maria narrowed her eyes at him, resisting the urge to cross her arms over her chest and instead shot him her tried and true death glare.

“And besides, you know better! And you sure as hell know the stable rules about mounting horses indoors!”

“Oh, do I?” she retorted mockingly. “Or did you forget? I’m just a stable girl. I don’t ride the racehorses. I just make them look pretty, and I certainly don’t know those unspoken rules.”

“They aren’t unspoken!”

“Oh yeah?”

“If you ever paid attention to anything, you’d know Liz has posted several signs around the facilities stating that riding the horses in the stables is illegal.”

“You gonna call the cops on me?”

“Maria,” he ground out.

“Michael,” she challenged.

“Look,” he sighed. “I’m not here to rain on your parade. I just didn’t think that you’d take such a risk if you wanted to be an exercise rider and jockey someday.”

“How do you know about that?”

“Are you really that surprised?” he smirked up at her. “We did happen to be good friends once. I didn’t take you for a girl whose dreams changed at the drop of a hat.”

“Things can change,” she responded flippantly.

“Not things like this,” he stated quietly.

She bit back a sarcastic reply, staring down at him in shock as he referred to one of the several conversations they shared years ago. While a lot of their time was spent palling around and having fun, the two also talked about their dreams, feeling completely comfortable sharing their innermost hopes and desires with the other as they grew closer before their falling out.

“I really think you should hop down now, Maria.”

“I really think you should leave me be, and let me dismount in peace, Michael.”

He winced at her tone. This wasn’t going the way he had wanted it to. “Well, I’ve got news for you. And you’re right: things can change.”

“Do they?” she queried, her hands beginning to shake, partly because of nervousness and partly because of excitement.

He paused, “Let me help you down, then I’ll tell you, okay? This is something I don’t think that you want to hear on a horse’s back.”

She nodded briskly, puzzled by his words before springing into action. Maria swung her leg back over the filly’s rump and slowly dismounted as Michael stepped forward, his hand resting on the small of back as he steadied her until she was standing on the straw-covered stall floor.

Once on the ground, she turned to face him and tapped her foot dramatically. “What’s the deal?”

He gave her a tentative smile, taking in her features. Her blonde hair was a little longer these days, and she was wearing it up in a side ponytail. Her eyes were bright, and she gazed at him expectantly. “Liz told me that she wants you to be Hope’s exercise rider.”

Maria’s face lit up with the news, and she jumped up and down in excitement, flinging her hands in the air and squealing loudly, forgetting where she was and what she had just been doing. Stepping closer to him, she beamed, wrapping her thin arms around his waist and squeezing him tightly in a spur-of-the-moment bear hug. It was something she hadn’t done in years, and he was stunned that she was initiating any kind of physical contact.

Shaking off his surprise, he followed her motions, draping his longer arms around her shoulders and lightly rubbing her back as she grinned up to him.

“Oh my God! Oh my God! Michael, I’m going to be Hope’s rider! Oh my God!”

“Told you that you wouldn’t want to hear it on Hope’s back,” he smirked as she realized what she was doing. Her face dropped immediately, and Maria disentangled her arms from his middle, taking an awkward step back and immediately spun to face Hope, flinging her arms around the gray horse’s neck and dropping noisy kisses all over her favorite filly’s nose.

“You hear that, Hope? I’m gonna be your rider… we’re gonna be stars!”

The filly whinnied shrilly, swinging her head from side to side in a jubilant movement, and Maria abandoned herself in the moment, laughter falling from her lips freely as she stroked Hope’s neck, cheeks and face before tickling beneath Hope’s chin and earning a slobbery kiss from the filly as she rose her gray head slightly to Maria’s shoulder, nuzzling her affectionately.

“So now that you’ve heard the news, I suppose you can go ahead and start getting her ready for her workout this morning?”

“Sure.”

Nothing else was said between the two, and after Maria half-danced, half-glided past him in the direction of Liz’s office, Michael slipped out of the stall silently, running his hand down his face and sighing. Maria DeLuca was going to be the death of him… but at least she was excited about riding Hope during her workouts. At least he had been the one to tell her that.

“Hey! Make sure you’re ready to ride in thirty minutes,” he called after her, and she paused, turning slowly to face him again.

Her smile was brilliant, and she nodded her head eagerly. “I’ll meet you and Hope on the track!”

* * * * *

Exactly thirty minutes later, Maria trotted arm-in-arm with her best friend toward the outdoor training track, her face still lit up as they approached Michael, who was standing near the entry chute with Hope. The filly was shifting her weight between her feet, clearly sensing something new was happening, and she whinnied shrilly when she spotted Maria.

Maria had changed from her usual grooming clothes of jeans and an old T-shirt to a more formal riding outfit, donning a pair of tan-colored riding breeches and a light pink button-down top. She was carrying a riding helmet in the crook of her left arm, and she was clearly still flying high from the news of the morning.

“No need to get all uppity,” Maria told the horse as she approached, placing a gentle hand on the filly’s neck as she leaned in and gave Hope a hug, scratching the coarse black hair on her forelock that draped slightly over her forehead. “This is an exciting morning, girl.”

Hope snorted, bobbing her head up and down as Michael and Liz shared a look. Both had been watching Maria and Hope’s interactions that morning — and every morning — and they were pleased the two got along so well. They just hoped the two would continue getting along splendidly when it came to a horse and rider relationship.

Either way, they were about to find out.

“Are you two ready yet?”

Maria rotated her body to face the two trainers, rolling her eyes at Michael as she did, and confirmed, “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

Michael said nothing, simply linking his hands together to form a foothold. Maria shook her head, knowing this was definitely his M.O. before pulling on her helmet, securing it beneath her chin as she took a few steps forward. Without another word, she dropped her left foot into his awaiting palms, springing herself onto Hope’s back, all the while speaking to the filly so she knew what was happening.

Once Maria was situated in Hope’s lightweight racing saddle, she looked down upon the two trainers. “So what’s the plan?”

Liz chuckled and gestured to Michael. “I’m sitting this one out, guys,” and with that, she trotted back to the metal bleachers that lined the backstretch and joined several of their co-workers, including Kyle, Jim, Tess, Courtney, and Isabel. Maria lifted her head and waved to the crowd, and most returned the gesture before she shifted her attention back to Michael.

“Done communicating with your fan club?”

“Oh, whatever,” she replied sarcastically. “They’re here for Hope, not me. Or they could be here to see if sparks fly.”

“Sparks?” he sounded confused, and he scrunched his eyebrows together, looking up at her expectantly.

“I mean, to see if either of our tempers explode since we’re working together.” She shot him an incredulous look.

“Are they seriously that vapid?”

“Dunno,” Maria shrugged, shifting the reins from her right hand to her left before speaking again. “Everybody needs to see a good show every once in a while.”

“Ah.”

There was a beat in the conversation before Maria queried, “Haven’t you noticed people waiting around for us and watching?”

Michael blinked a few times in her direction, unsure how to answer her question. Not that he was the most observant of people, but he wasn’t aware their co-workers were constantly watching and waiting for the two of them to do explode.

“I’ll take that as a no,” she shook her head before letting out a little laugh. “Take a look next time, and you’ll begin to notice the stares.”

“Maria, we’ve been working together with Hope for more than nine months,” he grumbled. “Why would our colleagues think our tempers are going to explode this morning, of all mornings?”

“I think some of our dear co-workers and friends have a bet going,” Maria confided, her voice hushed. “You know Liz and the bets she used to do during our college years, and she’s only gotten worse with age.”

“Which is why I find it so amusing that she absolutely refuses to bet at the tracks.”

“For good reason,” Maria confirmed with a sharp nod of her head. “But I think they’ve got a bet going to see how long the two of us can work together peacefully without a major blowout fight.”

He quirked an eyebrow at her, “So who do you think bet that we’d get along?”

Maria shrugged. “Maybe Tess or Kyle. Both are all about the bets that Liz has dragged me into, but neither knows our full backstory, so I think they’d be the ones to bet on it.”

“Want to prove them right?”

“I’d much rather continue this without fighting,” she confirmed. “So what’s the plan?”

He paused for a moment, surprised with how quickly Maria changed the direction of their conversation. He nodded, bringing his palms together in front of his face as his eyes looked over the track that was currently bathed in the golden morning light. “Since it’s her first time out on the track with you, I think we should take it easy.”

“Sure.”

“How about you trot her for half a mile before shifting to a jog for the next half? Ease her into the jog. No need to rush it or be pushing for anything today. And then, I want you to sprint out the final furlong. After that, you’ll cool her down with a half trot then a final quarter walk. I’ll come meet you at the walk.”

“Sounds good to me, boss,” she nodded her head firmly, giving him a grin. “Anything else?”

He shook his head, and Maria tugged on the right rein, giving Hope’s sides a tap with her heels as she encouraged the filly to enter the track for the first time with a rider.

“Maria?” he called after her.

“Hmm?” she pulled back on the reins, slowing Hope, and she turned her head just slightly so she could see Michael in her peripheral vision.

“Be safe out there,” he stated quietly. “Remember she’s still a baby, so she doesn’t know any better than what she’s already seen on the track. And since you’re riding her, you get to be the person who introduces her to this. Be safe, have fun, and be the best guide you can be for Hope.”

“Not a problem!”

* * * * *

Kyle was standing next to Courtney and Tess, leaning slightly on the railing and watching Hope and Maria trot halfway around the mile-long track. Liz, Jim, and Isabel were seated next to one another at the top of the bleachers, chatting amongst themselves as Max and Alex joined the crowd of onlookers. They were all looking down on the track expectantly, clearly enthusiastic about Maria and Hope’s first workout on the track together.

Kyle held his breath, observing his friend riding the filly gracefully, and they picked up their speed at the half-mile pole, shifting from an easygoing trot to a more fast-paced jog. Kyle had seen this all before, but he was thrilled and a little nervous on Maria’s behalf, especially since the two of them had been working on her riding skills during the last year.

“She looks really good,” Tess whispered, leaning into Kyle as they both continued watching Maria ride Hope through her jog. “This is the start of something amazing for Maria.”

“Agreed,” Kyle nodded his head. “I can’t believe this is finally happening.”

“We knew it would.”

“Yeah, but in talking to Maria, it still felt so far off. You know?”

“Mmmhmm,” Tess concurred, turning her attention completely back to Maria, her ears perking up slightly as she heard the tall blonde groom who was on the other side of Kyle mumble something to herself as she never drew her blue eyes from the novice jockey and horse.

“What was that?” Tess asked, leaning forward to look at Courtney.

“Oh, nothing,” the girl grumbled, ignoring Tess’ stare and focusing her attention on Maria and Hope again as they easily jogged down the backside of the track, both looking like they were having an immense amount of fun.

“I thought you said something disparaging about my friend,” Tess retorted, her eyebrows raising as she studied the other girl. Courtney had been a mystery to her, though she knew the girl was dating Michael and seemed to be unreasonably possessive of her man, especially when it came to Maria. Judging from what she thought she just heard the girl mutter and the stories Maria told her about Courtney’s craziness, Tess wouldn’t put the insult past her.

“Yeah, Courtney,” Kyle chimed in. “What was that again?”

“Fine,” the other girl spat back, narrowing her eyes as she finally swung them from the track to glare at Tess. “I said that Maria didn’t deserve to be riding a horse like Hope.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kyle asked, tearing his gaze from his friend who had just urged her horse into a sprint to stare at Courtney with weary eyes.

“Maria’s trash,” Courtney hissed. “She doesn’t belong up there on a racehorse like Hope or any other kind of horse. She should stick to the grooming. That’s where she belongs, whether or not she agrees with it.”

“What?!” Tess exclaimed, placing a calming hand on Kyle’s shoulder as she spoke for the two of them. “Do you really have the nerve to come out here and insult our friend while her dream is coming true? Are you really that bitchy?”

“Telling the truth doesn’t make me a bitch,” the other girl returned glibly.

“I’m sick and tired of you being so cruel to Maria!” Tess hissed. “What in the world did she ever do to you? Other than put your boyfriend in a tailspin for years before you were even in the picture?”

“Put my boyfriend in a tailspin?” Courtney let out a disparaging laugh.

“Oh, so I guess you don’t know about their history, do you?” Tess responded, her tone harsh.

“Maria’s not a threat to me,” she murmured. “And any way, I’m not talking about this with you.”

Courtney ignored the two jockeys, choosing to turn her attention back to Maria and Hope, who were finishing up their sprint and shifting gears, slowing to a jog, then a trot. Maria’s body language said it all: She was beaming for the entire world to see, as well as riding strongly and confidently. Courtney frowned at the other girl as she watched her moving around the track. Her scowl deepened when she saw Michael moving from his position in the watching tower near the backstretch to the track, clearly intent on meeting Maria and speaking with her about the workout. This wasn’t good.

* * * * *

“How’d she feel out there?” Michael breathed out, meeting Hope and Maria in the middle of the track as they slowed to a walk.

“Great!” Maria enthused, bubbling vivaciously as she described the experience. “She felt great, and so did I. I mean, I know it was still her first workout on the track with a rider and all, but I feel like she felt strong and confident and that there are good things in the future for Hope if she continues on this path.”

Michael laughed and nodded, agreeing with her for once before pausing a moment before speaking, “You both looked really good out there together.”

Maria beamed down at him, choosing to accept his compliment instead of wondering what his words meant. “Aww, thanks, Michael. You’re the sweetest.”

His eyebrows raised slightly, his eyes matching hers in mischief. “I thought I was an asshole.”

“Well, I changed my mind,” Maria shrugged, leaning over slightly to pat Hope’s neck and stroke her midnight black mane. “If you’re going to compliment Hope and me, I suppose you can’t be too bad of a guy.”

“Ah, well, that’s good to know,” he said more to himself.

He placed a gentle hand on Hope’s neck as they walked together, and the filly bobbed her head, whinnying to him. “Yes, Hope. You looked good. Soak it in. But you already knew you were gonna be a star, huh?”

Hope snorted, picking up her pace a little, and Maria laughed quietly, slowing the filly down again easily as Michael sped up to stride along with them once again.

“So what’s the game plan? What did you think? Do you think we’ve got something good going on here?”

“Definitely,” he agreed. “Granted, this was just her first workout, but she looked really good, confident, and calm out there on the track with you.”

“She felt good, too.”

“I’ll have to discuss it with Liz, but we are going to continue with the training here to prep Hope for her maiden race. You’ll continue your training, too, and the two of you will be prepared when the time comes.”

“Sounds like a plan to me. Is there a timeline you had in mind?”

“Not really,” Michael shrugged. “I was thinking that if we could get her ready for it, Hope could run her maiden in May or June, leaving us plenty of time for the rest of the year, depending on how her first race goes.”

“Nice. Any other plans?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Michael murmured, turning his attention to the gray filly who was calmly walking beside him. Hope gave him a nicker as she noticed his gaze falling on her face, and he chuckled, reaching out and scratching the crook between the horse’s chin and neck, earning a pleased snort from the filly.

Maria leaned forward again, stroking the filly’s neck and mane again, and whispered, “I’ve got complete faith in you, girlie, but we have to prove it to the world. So prepare yourself!”

Hope turned her head slightly to where she could see Maria perched atop her spine and blew out an excited, noisy breath before turning her attention to Michael, who was now walking next to her head, bumping him with her nose and knocking him off balance for a second before he righted himself, Maria biting back a giggle and failing.

“I heard that, DeLuca,” his tone was low.

“Doesn’t make it any less funny, Guerin,” she returned lightly. “You’ve gotta loosen up, Michael. I mean, really.”

He just shook his head at her statement, speaking low to Hope as they walked together, the filly occasionally reaching her head out and nuzzling Michael’s shirt or arm as they moved down the track.

There was a lull in the conversation, each contemplating what this morning’s workout meant for them and their careers as they rounded the final turn and reached the chute, Maria pulling back on the reins to stop Hope. Within a few seconds, the filly was standing stock still, moving her head from side to side and sending her mane flying as she neighed loudly, and Maria laughed at her antics. Hope was definitely full of herself, but she deserved it. She should be proud. She did a damn good job out there, and who was she to rain on the filly’s parade?

Her thoughts were interrupted when Michael spoke, his gaze lifting up to her face expectantly.

“Do you need help down?”

“I think I’ve got it,” Maria responded easily. “Could you grab her bridle?”

“Sure thing,” he confirmed, stepping forward and wrapping a firm hand around the cheekpiece of Hope’s bridle, his fingers tickling the side of the filly’s face as he held her still.

Maria took a deep breath, releasing the reins to rest on Hope’s withers and neck before slowly swinging her right leg over the saddle and balancing on the center of Hope’s back. She lowered herself slightly and gracefully, then sprung backward awkwardly off the filly. On the way down, she realized she had overshot her jump, and she landed unstably on one foot, wobbling as she hit. Michael let go of Hope’s bridle, rushing to her side. Within a second, he caught her elbow with one hand and her waist with the other, pulling her close to his body to steady her before she lost her balance and toppled to the ground.

She turned her head, and their eyes met for a split second before either spoke, emotions flaring.

“Are you all right?” he asked instantly, steadying her before removing his hands, forcing his hands off her figure and resisting the overwhelming urge to raise them and cup her cheeks as he confirmed she was, indeed, unharmed as he noticed her flushed face. Instead, he grabbed Hope’s bridle again, pleased that the filly hadn’t moved from her position even though she was not being held, and he grabbed the right rein, pulling it over her head and holding the reins firmly.

Maria chuckled to herself, shaking her head slightly as she tore her gaze from his and instead looked at Hope. The filly was watching with interest, her chocolate eyes moving from Maria to Michael and back. “Serves me right to jump down like that. Of course, I would fall on my first day out on the track. It would only be fitting, you know?”

“As long as you’re okay,” he responded, looking her over as to make sure nothing was terribly wrong.

“Really, Michael,” she sighed, shifting her weight from side to side, her lips turning down into a grimace for a split second before she pasted on another winning DeLuca smile. “I’m fine. My ankle hurts a little bit, but it’s nothing major. I can still walk on it.” And with that, she took a shaky step forward. “See?”

“Don’t go hurting yourself, DeLuca,” he finally responded, nodding his head as if to accept her explanation. “We’ve got a lot of work to do here.”

“Mmmmhmm.”

He rolled his eyes, and they walked off the track together, Hope trailing behind the two of them, nickering and whinnying for all to hear about her first time on the track.
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"There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."
-Henry David Thoreau-

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LuckyMiss
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Hope for a Champion (M&M+CC, Adult) - Chapter 6C - 10/8

Postby LuckyMiss » Wed Oct 08, 2014 4:24 pm

Happy Wednesday afternoon, y’all! Long time, no post. I know. Life’s been a bit hectic… and it’s going to get crazier come the first of March because I’m having a baby!

I plan on continuing to update this story, and I’ll do my best to drop by weekly with a new part for y’all. Come March, we’ll see what happens, but I fully intend on finishing this story, and I hope y’all stick along for the ride.

As always, thanks to the lovely folks who left feedback and those of y’all who are reading along:

Carolyn: Can you believe that while I’ve been to the racehorse track before, I’ve never actually placed a bet? I should probably fix that, huh? And I’m sure that even though quarter horse racing at Ruidoso is different than what this story depicts, I bet it’s still a blast!

Eva: Yes, horses do have a way of bringing people together. I’m glad that even though it’s buried beneath grumpy/aggressive attitudes, you can see the friendship. As far as what Courtney will do and what happens next? You’ll have to wait and see. ;)

Eve: Thanks!

April: Dang, girl. Your feedback makes me smile because it’s so darn thorough!

Chapter 5A: A lot can happen in a year, huh? You’re right about needing to move on before you can pursue what you really want sometimes. :) Liz was totally justified in talking to M&M like she did, and their professional responsibility comes before any personal squabbles. And when they put their minds to it, M&M really do make a great team.

Chapter 5B: *blushes* Thank you! I really try hard with the descriptive stuff because it’s not in my nature. (Journalism school made me succinct and beat the flowery writing out of me, so I always focus on adding those details I’d like to see in a story now. Because flowery writing in something like this is exactly what’s needed.)

Yeah, I wanted Michael’s dad to be a little different than the usual horrible guy we see in most stories. Granted, that doesn’t mean Michael doesn’t have some demons and stuff hidden in his past, but it’ll all be addressed eventually.

The Churchill Downs flashback made me cry as I wrote it, so I’m glad the gut-wrenching part of it translated on the page. Maria really has seen so much in her short life, and I agree: it’s pretty amazing that she wants to continue working around horses after witnessing her father’s untimely demise at the hooves of one. She is carrying on her father’s legacy, and she hopes she makes him proud.

Chapter 5C: Surprised ya there, huh? Michael IS enjoying his time with Courtney, even if his co-workers smell trouble. And the apology for M&M was absolutely a big step.

I think being friends is too much to ask, though. I don't think they can be friends. It's either truce/cordial or sex-having/falling in love with them. No in-between. Although, maybe working close together with Hope could actually make being friends a bit more of a possibility. I don't know. That remains to be seen.


You might be right here, but this has yet to be proven either way. They’re being forced to work together in close quarters with Hope, but the question is: Can they overcome everything that’s happened to them? Can they willingly be friends — just friends — forget the past and just move forward as that without other entanglements slowing them down?

Courtney’s reaction after Maria’s unexpected visit? Totally understandable to me, too, even if she went too far by going over to Maria’s. Time will tell if Michael is turned off by the possessive/jealous girlfriend.

I’d never listened to “Wild Ones” before, but you’re right… those lyrics are super appropriate for this story! Thanks for sharing and reading, lady!


As always, special thanks to Maria for editing this part what feels like a lifetime ago, and to Angel for picking up the slack and editing my newer chapters!

I hope y’all enjoy this part!



Chapter 6C

After Hope, Michael, and Maria strolled off the track, they went their separate ways, Maria leading Hope off to the bathing station in the training barn while Michael met up with Courtney by the fence. His girlfriend wore no expression on her face as she stared off into the distance.

When he spoke, he startled her, and she turned to face him immediately.

“Hey!” he greeted her, giving her a small grin as she turned to face him.

“Hey yourself,” she mumbled.

“What’d you think?” he raised an eyebrow, his cheery mood making him oblivious to her sullen greeting.

“About?” she lifted a hand, gesturing for him to continue.

“The workout,” he stated dully. “What did you think about Hope’s workout?”

“It was fine.”

“Think I’ve got a champion on my hands?”

“Maybe,” she shrugged, and she allowed him to grab her hand, leading her toward the training barn.

“What’s the deal with you this morning?” he asked, giving her a once over as they walked through the open double doors of the stable. Other grooms were aflutter with activity, brushing and bathing horses after their morning workouts, and while Courtney should have been working with them, he was thankful she came to see Hope’s first run on the track and that she was supporting his career.

“No deal,” she murmured, avoiding eye contact.

“I think you’re lying to me.”

“I think you’re being a bit dramatic,” she huffed. “I mean, honestly.”

He paused, narrowing his eyes as he looked down at his girlfriend. Something was definitely up. “You’re lying.”

And with that, he steered the two of them into the tack room, closing the door after they entered so no prying eyes or curious ears could overhear whatever Courtney was going to say to him. Without thinking, he placed a strong hand on either of her shoulders and forced her to raise her chin, meeting his eyes for the first time in their conversation.

“Talk,” he stated firmly, pushing down on her shoulders and forcing her to take a seat on the wooden bench in the middle of the cedar room, lowering himself to the seat next to her as he stared at her intently, unsure why she was in such a bad mood.

“Do you want to tell me what’s going on with you and Maria?” Courtney ground out, talking to his shoulder instead of looking him in the eyes, afraid of what she would see in them at her question.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he responded smoothly, unsure why she was so upset about him working with Maria. That’s all they were doing: Working.

“That’s not what Kyle and Tess had to say about it.”

“What in the world do Kyle and Tess know about me and Maria?” Why did the workers of Daydream think they had the right to discuss his relationship — or rather, nonexistent relationship — with Maria? And why couldn’t they just keep their noses out of other peoples’ business, especially since Courtney had overheard the last discussion?

She opened her mouth to speak, but paused, closing it again. She was clearly choosing her words carefully, and when she finally opened her lips again to speak, she spat, “Oh, apparently just more than I do.”

“You’re going to have to elaborate on that.”

“Apparently, she put you in a tailspin years ago. And apparently, they think there’s still something there,” she narrowed her eyes as she flashed back to what she oversaw on the track this morning.

“What has you running scared of my past with Maria?”

There was a pause before Courtney whispered, “I saw something there this morning.”

“What?”

“You caught her when she was about to fall,” she stated softly, self-consciously wrapped her arms around her waist, pulling herself in as Michael wrapped a supportive arm around her shoulders.

“What was I supposed to do? Let her end up in a heap on the ground?”

“No!” She bit her lip, secretly wishing she could have exclaimed ‘Yes!’ instead.

“Then why are you making me the villain here?” he asked, genuinely curious. In the year and a half he and Courtney had been dating, she’d made some strange requests and questions for him about his past, but this conversation took the cake. Why couldn’t she take what he said for face value?

“I saw it with my own two eyes — what happened when you touched her. She blushed, and you definitely reacted when the two of your bodies were pushed together! And then add in the fact that I’m just going off what they told me,” she shrugged. “Which is funny because I’ve heard more about your relationship with Maria from them than I have from you yourself.”

“Court,” he sighed. “What happened between me and Maria is over. It’s been over for a long time. And there certainly isn’t anything there. I’m with you, not her.”

“So what was there?” she asked, raising her cool blue eyes to meet his amber ones, the question direct and cutting.

He wasn’t sure what to do, but it was clear that he had to answer his girlfriend. They already discussed his relationship with Maria, and he wasn’t sure that telling Courtney more about their history would make things better. He remembered the way she reacted the night Maria paid him a late night visit to straighten out their working relationship. He was willing to take the chance if it meant his girlfriend would understand his strained, quasi-friendship with Maria. If she really wanted to know, then surely she would be able to cope with it. After all, they both had a past.

“I’m still waiting,” she snapped impatiently.

“Geez, chill!” For some reason, her attitude regarding his and Maria’s friendship annoyed him in the moment.

“And now you’re stalling,” she groaned. “I knew it was something bad. I knew it. And yet, I didn’t listen to my instincts,” she mumbled, more to herself than to him.

“What do you have against Maria?” Michael asked pointedly.

“I don’t have anything against her,” Courtney started, but he interrupted her.

“You’re lying to me again, Courtney,” he stated softly. “I get that you’re threatened because she and I have a past, but you’re really pushing it here, especially since we’ve spoken before about how Maria and I are no longer a thing.”

Courtney sighed dramatically, the phrase, ‘a thing,’ hanging over her head menacingly. So was he admitting there was a thing between them? She ran a nervous hand through her long blonde hair before glancing up at his stony face again.

“It’s just, I’ve had bad experiences with exes,” she commented, by way of explanation.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I was dating this guy before I met you,” she stated. “He was great. We hit it off, and everything was going smoothly until his ex-girlfriend showed up out of the blue.”

“I don’t see what this has to do with me and Maria.”

She huffed again, closing her big, blue eyes for a second before opening them and meeting his questioning gaze. “All was well until she came back into his life. And then he ran away with her, leaving me in the middle of the night with nothing more than a note expressing his condolences!”

“And you’re afraid that Maria is going to do this to our relationship?” He snickered at the absurdity of him running off with Maria, of all people.

“I’m not an idiot, Michael,” she sighed. “It’s not that I think she will, but since the two of you clearly have a past together, it makes me nervous because I’ve been burned before.”

“Lucky for you, Maria was never my girlfriend.”

“What was she then?”

“Something… else,” his voice tapered off, dropping an octave, which earned a shocked glimpse from Courtney.

“That doesn’t make me feel any better,” she responded crossly, unhappy with Michael’s vagueness. What the hell did ‘something else’ mean? Was Maria something more than a girlfriend to Michael? And if she was, what had gone wrong to form the relationship they had now? As much as she wanted to know, she didn’t want to know that some stable hand could have been something more to Michael than she currently was.

“Look, Court,” he sighed. “I’m telling you that you have nothing to worry about with me and Maria. Yes, we have a past. Yes, we were something more a long time ago. But it was a long time ago, and we’re co-workers now, and we don’t want our past differences to make our working relationship complicated.”

“And that’s it?”

“That’s it,” he confirmed with a nod of his head.

“She’d better not start jockeying for your attention.”

“Trust me when I say that our relationship is strictly professional.”

“I do,” Courtney conceded. “But if I get a hint that something more is happening, I will be an unhappy girl..”

“You shouldn’t be concerned.”

“Well, that bitch better not try to put her hands on what is mine,” she hissed out, continuing her stream of thought without hearing what Michael just uttered. “And anyways, she needs to learn that she can’t have everything just fall into her lap.”

“Maria’s not a bitch, Court,” he returned firmly, stunned at his girlfriend’s accusation of their co-worker. “And you know nothing about her, so don’t assume you do. She’s spent years working hard to be where she is today, and she knows she has a lot to lose.”

Courtney sighed, nodding her head in agreement as she registered how quickly Michael jumped to Maria’s defense, even though he continued to deny something between the two of them. She would drop it for now, but the topic would have to be revisited, especially since she suspected there was so much more happening beneath the surface that neither Michael nor Maria would admit — to themselves, to each other, and definitely to her. “Okay, okay. I’ll drop it. But she’d better not set her sights on you, that’s all I’m saying.”

Michael shook his head, wondering how his love life had become so complicated that he now had to answer inane questions from his girlfriend about a previous lover. He let out a deep breath, deciding to ignore Courtney’s final comment before asking her, “Any more questions for me?”

She shook her head, the corners of her lips curling upward in the beginnings of a small smile. “How did you get to be so damn perfect?”

He groaned as she inched closer to him, dropping a peck on his cheek before kissing a line to his full lips, finally placing her lips atop his in a searing kiss.

“How ‘bout we take this back to your apartment?” she murmured against his lips before they were caught up in another passionate embrace.

“Sounds good to me,” he agreed, wrapping his arms around her waist and kissing the life out of her before disentangling himself and grabbing her palm in his, opening the door to the tack room and trotting back to his apartment as fast as possible.

* * * * *

The sun was beginning its descent to the horizon, and Maria and Kyle were riding their favorite retired racehorses, Ghost and Warrior, on a leisurely trail ride after their eventful morning. Maria was still buzzing at the turn of events, and her enthusiasm was infectious.

“I still cannot believe that I rode Hope during her first workout this morning!”

“And, not surprisingly, you looked damn good out there on the track,” Kyle added, grinning to his friend as they rode side-by-side down one of the wider trails on Daydream’s property. The trees looked ghostly, none of them showing any signs of life this January afternoon, and there was a bite in the air, a sure sign that a storm was on its way in. This winter had been a calm one so far, but the meteorologists were calling for an ice storm, if their predictions could be believed. So far, though, the sun was shining and the wildlife was singing.

“I mean, I always imagined what it would feel like,” Maria gushed. “But I just didn’t realize it would feel like that, you know?”

“Yep,” he nodded.

“And then Hope… my God, Kyle,” she gasped, reining Ghost around a barren tree that had fallen in the pathway during an storm the previous winter. “She’s gonna be a star. I know it. Not only does she have the personality of a winning racehorse, but she’s got the heart and the drive and the speed of one. Michael didn’t tell me the time we clocked for the quarter we sprinted, but she was flying, and she had so much left. And it was her first time running like that out on the track, too!”

“I should hope so,” Kyle chuckled. “Because you know her maiden’s gonna be a lot longer than a quarter mile!”

Maria rolled her eyes. “Well, duh, Kyle. I might be a newbie exercise rider, but I’m not an idiot.”

“I know you aren’t,” he returned kindly.

“Mmhmm.”

“Can I ask you something?” he started, sounding a little unsure of himself. “And will you answer me honestly?”

“Depends on what the question is,” she retorted cheekily, tossing a carefree smile in his direction.

“Hmm,” he mused to himself as his eyes looked forward, studying the pathway ahead of them as the bare tree branches swayed in the wind that had picked up since they began their ride nearly an hour before.

“Seriously, Kyle. What is it?”

“It’s about Michael.”

“Oh, God,” she groaned beneath her breath.

“And Courtney.”

“Even better,” she grimaced. “My two favorite topics.”

“Courtney said something pretty awful about you this morning while you and Hope were out on the track,” he started. “It’s been bothering me all day because I don’t know why she would say something like that, other than out of jealousy or spite.”

“I’m sure she’s just being a petty girl like she has always been toward me,” Maria shrugged, letting the fact that Courtney, once again, was going out of her way to cause trouble roll off her back. Courtney didn’t mean anything to her, and she wasn’t going to let the other groom rain on her parade, especially since it had gotten bigger and bolder earlier today.

“But why would she be nitpicking you as your dream came true? Or feel the need to say disparaging things about you when you’re not around to your friends?”

“No idea, Kyle.”

Kyle sighed loudly. “I’ve been in this business for about eight years, Maria, and I’ve heard a lot of crazy things in my day, but what she said was completely uncalled for and unfair to you.”

“And you’re saying that you haven’t heard the trash talk go back and forth between jockeys?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“This isn’t any different than that,” Maria shrugged, more to herself.

“But it is,” he smirked. “She’s your co-worker. Not your competitor.”

Maria blinked owlishly when Kyle’s words hit her. Maybe that had been the problem all along. Maybe Courtney saw her as a competitor — not only at the stables through their jobs, but also for Michael’s affection. And no matter how many misgivings she felt toward the other girl, she understood where she was coming from for the first time. Granted, Courtney had nothing to be worried about, as Maria was completely finished with Michael Guerin on a personal level, but she could see why Courtney felt threatened.

“Well, be that as it may, I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to let the haters ruin my time in the sun,” Maria responded slowly, brushing her fleeting compassion toward Courtney aside. “I don’t want to know what she said or why she said it. It doesn’t matter. But what in the world does this have to do with me and Michael?”

“Tess mentioned something.”

“Damnit, Tess,” Maria groaned. “I knew that girl couldn’t keep a secret to save her life.”

“In her defense,” Kyle started. “I don’t think she meant to say anything, but she really wanted to put Courtney in her place because she overheard that girl speaking negatively about you, too.”

“Well, that was nice of her, I suppose,” Maria grumbled.

“She said you put Michael in a tailspin years ago and that it took him a while to straighten himself out again,” Kyle spoke quickly. “I don’t even really know what that means or how she knows about it since she’s been here for less time than I have, but it came to my attention today that maybe you had some strange history or backstory with Michael and how hard that might be working with him since y’all do have a history.”

“Oh, Kyle,” Maria sighed, deflating a little at Kyle’s words. “Our history goes way back. It’s a long and painful one, so I won’t go into details. They don’t matter anymore.”

Kyle chanced a look at Maria before asking the question that rested on the tip of his tongue. He was beginning to see Maria in a new light, and he had to know. “Was he the reason why we didn’t work out?”

Maria’s bluegrass eyes bulged as the question slipped out of Kyle’s mouth, and she licked her lips nervously before sighing loudly. “Possibly.”

“Oh, c’mon, DeLuca. At least be honest with yourself.”

“He…” her voice trailed off before she shook her head, clearing her thoughts and coming to the conclusion that she should come clean to her friend and fellow rider. “Yeah. Some things happened last year between the two of us.”

“Some things?” Kyle’s eyebrow arched. “Care to share more?”

“Not particularly,” the blonde whispered, raising her eyes to meet his as they continued down the wooded trail. “It’s just… there was unfinished business. And while I really liked you, it just wouldn’t have worked out.”

“Because of Michael.” It was a statement, not a question.

She bobbed her head in confirmation. “Because of Michael. But the thing is… we are both over it now, and we came to a truce when we learned we would be working with Hope.”

“So if I wanted to date you now, I’d have no problems?”

She let out a short laugh, “I didn’t say that, Kyle.”

“So you’re not over him?”

“No, I definitely am,” Maria shook her head again, convincing herself that what she was saying was actually true. “We’re done. It’s in the past, and we both have moved on. Hell, I dated you, albeit briefly, and I’m always on the lookout for Mr. Right. And he’s together with Courtney.”

“And that’s not weird?”

“It’s not the easiest thing in the world,” she shrugged after taking a moment. “It hasn’t been easy working with him because I still see…”

“Huh?”

“I just, I still sometimes see the qualities in him that I loved when he was one of my best friends,” Maria mumbled, taking a moment of stark honesty to express her long-repressed feelings for Michael and what they shared together so long ago. “But I guess the point is, we’re both over it and have moved forward. After all, he’s in a seriously committed relationship with Courtney, even if she does feel weirdly threatened by me.”

“And working with him isn’t strange?”

“We’re making it work.”

“You sure about that?”

“Uh, yeah,” Maria shot back instantly. “We’re over it. Done. Complete. And we’re working together. There’s nothing there anymore, either.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Kyle murmured, speaking more to himself than to Maria, but she overheard him, arching an eyebrow.

“You sure about that?” she batted her eyelashes at him, earning a laugh. “So, umm, I’ve been meaning to ask you something, too. And since we’re out here basically having a heart-to-heart with Ghost and Warrior, I might as well ask, huh?”

“What’s that?”

“You and Tess,” Maria spoke, smirking at her friend as he began avoiding her gaze.

“Nothing’s going on there.”

“You’re a dirty liar, Kyle Valenti!” she exclaimed, calling him out, and he shrank slightly into himself as his blue eyes were trained straight ahead, plotting their course down the trail.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, DeLuca,” he retorted.

“The longing gazes? The implied intimacy? The fact that neither of you are good at keeping a secret for long?”

“Not ringing a bell.”

Maria huffed jokingly. “Well, I just wanted to let you know that if you had any hang-ups about Tess because of what happened between the two of us last year, don’t.”

“Maria,” he started, but she shot him her ‘Don’t lie to me’ look, her green eyes blazing and challenging, and he thought twice about what he was about to say, gulping loudly. “That’s… kind of you, I guess.”

“She’s become one of my good friends, Kyle,” Maria began. “And I seriously think the two of you would be awesome together if you gave it a shot. No reason to hold back anymore.”

“I wasn’t holding back.”

“And yet, you both have clearly been jonesing after the other for months now, and there has been no movement whatsoever. Why, pray tell, is that? Could it be because, hmm,” she paused, drawing out the ‘mmm’ sound before lifting a delicate hand to rest beneath her chin. “Could it be because you kind of dated me last year, and you feel weird dating someone else with me around? Could it be that you and Tess actually are dating, and you’ve been keeping this a secret from everyone, me included, for so long that you feel guilty? Or is something else the problem? Because I don’t get it, Kyle. She’s basically your dream girl.”

He chuckled at Maria’s analysis of the situation.

“And besides, she’s got the best of both worlds that you were lacking with me.”

“Oh yeah?” he quirked a grin, raising a curious eyebrow. “And what would that be?”

“She’s blonde, your favorite hair color on a lady, as I well know. Not only is she a tow-headed beauty, but she’s also intelligent, she’s a jockey, she’s got a quirky sense of humor…”

“You’re describing yourself now, M,” he verbally rolled his eyes at her.

She snorted before concluding enthusiastically, “The last point is that she’s stacked! Which is clearly something I don’t have to worry about… or have.”

They broke into a fit of laughter, their voices echoing through the barren woods as they rode along in companionable silence before either spoke again.

“So you really like her?” he sounded curious.

“Of course I do,” Maria responded immediately. “She’s become a great gal pal. And after hearing your story of her basically defending me to Courtney, she’s a true friend. And I only want the best for my friends, you included.”

“Well, thanks,” Kyle winked, his tone sincere.

The two turned their horses down yet another trail when Maria paused, looking up at the sky to see dark gray clouds moving in, beginning to block the sunlight, and a shiver ran through her body as a gust of wind picked up. The air rustled through the barren trees, making the branches sound brittle, and she grimaced at the chattering noise they made as they rattled against each other.

“Do you believe what those meteorologists are predicting?” skepticism was heavy in her tone.

“Nah,” he shrugged the question off but he, too, turned his gaze to the skies. “Ice storms are few and far between where I come from.”

“Kyle, you’re from Texas,” Maria groaned immediately. “We live in Kentucky. There are more than a few subtle differences in the weather and the weather patterns here.”

He shook his head, his eyes drawn to the sky again before turning back to her. “What I was going to finish with was that I doubt there’ll be one happening here tonight. Yes, I realize that Kentucky and Texas are two completely different places, but the fact of the matter is that it was too warm this afternoon, anyway. Ground’s not cold enough for anything to stick around.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” her voice trailed off as another gust of wind howled down the trail, hitting them both in the same moment and freezing them and their horses to their spots. “Temperature’s dropping, though.”

“True.”

“I think we should probably get ourselves and the horses back to the stables,” Maria concluded. “You know, just to be safe.”

“And to make sure all the horses have been brought in from the pastures,” Kyle added.

“And to confirm nothing else needs to be done in case it really does storm tonight.”

“Hear, hear,” he nodded, and they set off down the path, picking up their speed from a leisurely walk to a quick-paced canter, both of their minds on other things as they rode their trail horses in to the safety of the stables before the weather took a turn for the worse.
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"There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."
-Henry David Thoreau-


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