Authors: Stacy Gregg
Emily wasn't certain about the new kit either.
“These saddles are weird,” she said as she threw one across her mare's back. “They've got no kneepads.”
“Polo saddles don't have kneepads,” Alice said. “It makes it easier for the rider to move around to swing the stick.”
Georgie's first mount for the day was the young bay mare with the ewe neck that she had bought off Bart O'Malley. The mare's racing name was Lear Jet, so Georgie had shortened it to Jet. She was an extremely edgy mare and as Georgie mounted up, Jet was so anxious her flanks were trembling.
“Easy, Jet,” Georgie reassured her as she asked the mare to walk on.
Talking softly to the mare, Georgie walked her back and forth up and down the corridor as the other girls tacked up. She had almost got Jet calmed down, when she made the fatal mistake of leaning over the polo mallet stand and reaching in to grab herself a mallet. At the sight of the bamboo stick in her rider's hand Jet assumed she was in for a beating. Before Georgie could stop her, she had backed away in a total panic and kept on backing up all the way down the corridor!
Georgie kicked the mare forward, trying once again, but Alice shook her head. “You won't get her near that stand. She thinks the polo stick is a whip.”
Georgie dismounted and led the mare forward, but as soon as she took a stick in her hand the whites of the mare's eyes showed and she backed away in a frenzy once more.
“She's not going to make much of a polo mare if I can't hold a stick anywhere near her!” Georgie was frustrated.
“Forget about the stick today,” Alice suggested. “Just ride her without one.”
Admitting defeat, Georgie rode Jet without a mallet out on to the polo fields. At least the mare had a nice canter, she thought as she urged her on to ride in a steady circle. Jet's ewe neck meant that she tended to run like a giraffe with her head held high, but Georgie eventually got her going nicely on the bit, cantering in a good, steady circle.
Emily emerged from the stables on her first mount of the day â one of the two chestnuts she had bought at Keeneland Park.
“They're easy to tell apart,” Emily told Georgie. “Nala has a white coronet on her near hind and Jocasta hasn't got any white at all.”
Emily was riding Jocasta first. The chestnut mare seemed fine as she cantered her around on her own. She didn't even mind having the polo stick swinging alongside her. The problem came when Emily tried to ride the mare alongside Georgie and Jet. As soon as Jocasta pulled up alongside another horse, she fancied that she was in a race. Instead of turning when they reached the ball, Jocasta leaned against the bit and broke into a gallop. It took Emily a whole lap of the field to slow her down to a trot again and by then Jocasta had a lather of white sweat on her neck and her flanks were heaving. Emily was unperturbed. She had nerves of steel when it came to riding. She often told stories about life back home in New Zealand, most of which seemed to involve riding bareback at a gallop down the beach on young horses that had barely been broken. Being on a strung-out polo pony didn't worry Emily in the least. But Emily wasn't an aggressive rider and Georgie was concerned that her natural reticence might count against her on the field and make her stand back from tackling the other team.
Daisy didn't have that problem. In fact she was almost the opposite. She was so fiercely competitive that as soon as she was on the field she was in attack mode. Riding her bay Thoroughbred Francine, she hardly spent any time warming the mare up before she was practising her shoulder barges, cantering alongside Georgie and yanking on the reins to veer Francine hard to the left so that the horses rebounded off each other's shoulders like bumper cars.
At one point, Daisy and Francine nearly unseated Georgie with a shoulder barge that came out of nowhere.
“Hey!” Georgie shouted out to her. “What do you think you're doing?”
Daisy shrugged. “I've read the rule book and you're totally allowed to barge into the other rider â as long as the horses are directly side by side and you don't cut the other rider off.”
Alice, meanwhile, had tacked up Marco the chestnut gelding and was giving him his first run. Not wasting any time, she took him straight out on to the field and urged him into a fast canter down the long side. She was charging down on a ball with her mallet raised, ready to swing when Marco pulled up suddenly without warning, doing a 180-degree turn on the spot. Alice, who hadn't been expecting the dramatic change of direction, was flung forward out of the saddle and lost her seat.
It was the first time that any of the girls had seen Alice even come close to falling off. She catapulted straight on to Marco's neck and had to cling on to stay onboard. Her face was completely white with shock by the time Georgie and the others reached her.
“Did you see that?” Alice said. “He's totally nuts!”
“I guess that's why the jockeys called him Spinner,” Daisy pointed out.
By late afternoon, the girls had worked their way through all the Thoroughbreds that they'd bought at Keeneland Park, some with more success than others. Marco was quickly proving to be a nightmare. His habit of spinning round whenever something upset him was proving to be lethal.
“He's terrified of the ball! He's almost thrown me at least three times today,” Alice groaned as she un-saddled.
The ponies had worked up a sweat in their first training session and after they untacked their last mounts, the girls took all seven horses to the hose-down bay to wash them down.
There was a notice above the wash bay â clearly installed recently â stating that riders must muck out their stalls every day and keep group areas tidy.
“Do you think it's a dig at us?” Emily asked as she washed down Jocasta and Nala. “Those Burghley House boys seem pretty sniffy about having to share their stable quarters.”
“There's nothing they can do about it,” Alice said. “Mrs Dickins-Thomson said we're allowed to be here.”
“Still,” Georgie said, “I wouldn't put it past Heath Brompton to try and get us kicked out for being untidy tenants.”
“Then we'd better make sure he has nothing to complain about,” Alice agreed.
They spent ages that afternoon cleaning the yard, mucking out the stalls and sorting their tack neatly on the racks in the storage room. By the time the girls had fed the mares and put them away in the stables, the dirt and sweat that had previously been on the horses had managed to transfer itself on to them instead. They were filthy, smelly and utterly exhausted. Georgie's jodhpurs were covered in dung and muck. She had the world's worst helmet hair and she'd been riding so hard her muscles ached.
“I can't wait to get back to the house,” Alice said as they walked down the driveway together. “All I want to do is have a shower, eat dinner and collapse on the sofa and watch a movieâ”
“Ohmygod!” Georgie suddenly froze in the middle of the school driveway.
“Ohmygod what?” Alice frowned.
“I forgot,” Georgie winced. “I mean I totally forgot!”
The other girls looked at her expectantly.
“I've got a date,” Georgie groaned.
It was 6pm on a Sunday night and right now, James Kirkwood was standing on the doorstep waiting to take her to the movies.
eorgie had never actually been on a proper date before, but she was pretty sure that this wasn't how they were supposed to begin. She'd stormed past James on the step, muttering her apologies for being so late, too scared to actually slow down and talk to him in case he caught a whiff of the horse dung and sweat.
She would have understood if he'd given up on her after that, but he'd waited while she hastily showered, dressed and tried to resurrect her desperately bad helmet hair. Then they had caught the bus into Lexington in a mad rush and only just made it into the movie theatre in time.
The Lexington Lido was one of those old-fashioned cinemas with plush velvet seats and heavy curtains that pulled back from the screen as the movie started.
The movie was so old that it crackled and scratched on the screen as it played, but Georgie didn't care. She was consumed by the story. It was all about an English girl about her own age, whose name was Velvet. She was training a racehorse to win the Grand National. Even though some parts of the race itself looked a bit fake, the girl in the movie could ride really well â and her horse was gorgeous!
“Do you think it was really her?” Georgie asked James as they left the theatre afterwards. “You know, did the actress who played Velvet actually ride?”
James nodded. “Elizabeth Taylor did all her own stunts.”
“Now that would be a cool job,” Georgie said. “I would love to be a stunt double.”
“I thought you wanted to be an eventer?” James said.
“I do,” Georgie said. “And a part-time stunt rider.”
“And a polo player?”
“You make me sound like I can't make up my mind,” Georgie said.
“And you think you can?” James said. There was an edge to his voice as if he wasn't exactly joking.
Georgie frowned. “I get the feeling we're not talking about careers day any more?”
James raked a hand through his blond hair. “I'm just wondering if you know what you want, Georgie. And I'm wondering why this Riley keeps turning up. He's not even a polo player.”
“Riley has contacts at Keeneland Park racetrack. He got us in so we could buy the horses,” Georgie explained. “He was just trying to help.”
“Well if you need any help from now on, you ask me, OK?” James said. “I don't want Riley hanging around Blainford.”
They were almost back to the bus depot when Georgie spotted a massive poster on the wall of the town hall that featured the graphic blue silhouette of a horse galloping. The poster said:
Lexington Bluegrass Cup, February 10-11.
“What's the Bluegrass Cup?” Georgie asked. “Is it some kind of race?”
James shook his head. “It's a polo tournament. Lots of the major high-goal players travel to Lexington to play in it. The school usually lets us have a day pass to go and watch.”
He looked meaningfully at Georgie. “I can get us tickets to one of the Patron's marquees, if you like.”
“OK, “ Georgie was staring at the poster oblivious to James' flirtations, “but I don't really care where I sit â and the girls will want to come too. Let's just sit with the school in the stands and then we can get Cam and Alex and JP along as well.”
“Georgie,” James took her hand and drew her attention away from the poster at last, “I have something for you.”
He put his hand in his pocket, drew out a box and passed it to her.
“Open it and find out.”
Inside the box was a silver ring with the Blainford crest on it and a pale blue stone in the centre.
“It's my polo ring,” James said. “I won it in the Burghley-Luhmuhlen match. The blue stone is the colour of Burghley House and it has my name inscribed on the back of it.”
“It's really cool.” Georgie passed the ring back to him.
“No,” James said. “It's for you. I want you to wear it.”
“You want me to have your polo ring?”
“Of course,” James said, as he slipped it on Georgie's finger. “You're my girl, aren't you?”
Georgie carried the ring in her pocket around school the next morning.
“Why aren't you wearing it?” Daisy asked as they sat down to lunch with Alice and Emily.
“I thought it was against the school rules to wear jewellery,” Georgie said weakly. The truth was, the ring didn't feel right on her finger.
“Can I try it on?” Alice asked as she sat down with her lunch tray.
Georgie dug the ring out of her pocket and put it down on the table, but before Alice could lay a hand on it Emily had swooped it up. “MY precious!” she hissed when Alice tried to take it off her.
“Oh, for God's sake, Gollum! Give it here!” Alice examined the ring and slipped it on to her finger to admire it.
“It's not as glam as the one Wills gave to Kate,” Daisy said, “but I guess it's OK.”
“It's not an engagement ring,” Georgie said.
“Well it sounds like he thinks soâ¦” Daisy said.
“â¦which makes Kennedy your sister-in-law,” Alice added.
“And on that cheery note,” Georgie stood up and snatched her ring from between Alice's fingers, “I am going to go to polo class.”
“Are we still meeting you after school at the stables for stick-and-ball?” Alice shouted after her. “Or will you be too busy making plans for your royal wedding?”
Georgie wished she felt as excited as her friends did about the polo ring, but she kept thinking about Riley.
When James dropped her back at Badminton House after the movie he had leaned in close to kiss her and Georgie actually found herself flinching! She made excuses about being seen by the housemistress, then ducked inside, closing the door on him. It felt like she was betraying Riley, being out with James â which was totally crazy! Georgie couldn't wait to get out on the polo field and clear her head.
She had decided to ride Belle again for Heath Brompton's class that afternoon. The polo master already had it in for her, so it was probably best if she didn't turn up on one of the new green Thoroughbreds.
As Georgie rode across the polo fields she noticed that the class was bigger than usual. When she got closer she realised that there were senior riders mixed in amongst her usual classmates. She felt a knot tighten in her stomach as she saw that one of the seniors was Conrad Miller.
“I'm merging three of my classes today,” Heath Brompton explained to the students. “As you know, the Blainford Round Robin begins next week and I thought this would be a good opportunity to get some chukkas under your belts.”
Heath Brompton surveyed his riders. “There should be enough riders here for two teams from each boarding house. I'll leave it to you to sort it out amongst yourselves, and allocate shirt numbers.”
Heath Brompton frowned at Georgie. “Parker, you've got no team so I guess you're on the sidelines.”
“Actually, sir,” Georgie said, “I'm going to be playing in the Round Robin.”
“So where are the rest of your team mates?”
“They don't take polo as an option subject â they're in the eventing class,” Georgie explained, “but we've got permission to enter a Badminton House team. I thought the headmistress would have spoken to you about it by now?”
Heath frowned. It was clearly news to him, but he didn't want to let the students know that the headmistress had gone over his head and granted permission.
“Of course I know about it, Parker,” he harrumphed. “You can join Luhmuhlen today â they need an extra player. We're playing King of the Field. The rules are pretty basic. If you win, then you stay on.”
He turned to the polo class. “Right, let's have my boys from Burghley House up first, shall we?”
The first two teams on the field were both from Burghley House. Conrad was leading one of the teams wearing the number three shirt and Georgie had to admit that even though she couldn't stand him, he was a good player. Every time the ball shot free from the pack it was Conrad who got to it first. He had perfect timing at the gallop and an accurate swing, but the rest of his team mates weren't up to the same standard and a lot of the play was choppy and messy. There was a lot of mad galloping up and down the field, but very little in the way of goal-scoring. In the end, the only two goals were both scored by Conrad. His team stayed on the field to face the next challengers.
Heath Brompton blew his whistle. “Luhmuhlen? You're up next!”
“Hey, Parker,” Conrad gave her a malicious grin as she rode past him to take her place on the field. He made a gesture as if slitting his throat. “You're mine.”
It wasn't a hollow threat. From the moment that Heath Brompton threw the ball in, Georgie spent most of the game simultaneously trying to get her mallet on it and do her best to keep out of Conrad's way. But wherever she was, Burghley House's head prefect was right behind her.
Every time Georgie tried to make a play for the ball, Conrad would maliciously ride her off the line. One minute into play, she had the ball and suddenly Belle was reeling sideways as Conrad shoulder-barged his mare into her flank.
JP was right beside her and he pulled his mare up and raised his stick in the air to appeal to Mr Brompton. “Foul, sir! Conrad deliberately rode into her from behind!”
Heath Brompton blew his whistle. “No foul! Play on!”
The scores were tied at nil all and they were three minutes into the chukka when JP broke loose to make the first promising run for Luhmuhlen. Georgie rode Belle alongside him, in case he needed to pass the ball to her. She was focusing so hard on following the ball that the body blow from Conrad took her totally by surprise. Conrad had ridden up and cut right in front of her, using his mare's shoulder to block Georgie in. It was a totally illegal, dangerous move, but he clearly didn't care. Forcing Georgie to a stop, he took a second charge at her, ignoring the polo ball entirely as he slammed his mare into hers, body-checking her with his shoulder at the same time.
The unexpected impact flung Georgie sideways out of the saddle, but Belle moved to stay underneath her, so that Georgie was able to grasp at the neck strap where the martingale connected to the saddle and cling on long enough to get herself back upright again.
By the time she was aware of what Conrad had actually done to her, the Burghley prefect was long gone, up ahead of the rest of the players, chasing the ball and acting as if he hadn't just tried to intentionally push her off her horse.
Heath Brompton hadn't seen the foul so Georgie had no choice but to pull herself together and get back into the game. The Burghley team had just made it one-nil and this time it was Luhmuhlen's ball. JP took the opening shot and struck it straight to Georgie who tore off with it up the field. She could hear the hooves of the pack thundering behind her as she took a forehand shot to steer the ball towards the goal. The pack were gaining on her. This time she was on the alert for an attack from Conrad and as he went in for another shoulder charge she pulled Belle up abruptly and knee-barged him this time, riding him off his line. Conrad squealed like a stuck pig and threw up a stick in the air to cry foul. “Ref! She tried to eye-gouge me!”
The referee's whistle went. “Foul. Penalty to Burghley!” Georgie couldn't believe it. “You have got to be kidding me! I didn't do anything!”
Heath Brompton's mouth became a thin line. “That's a foul by you against Miller, Parker. Step back into line and let him take the shot.”
Georgie was trembling with suppressed rage as she took up her position with her team mates and was forced to watch as Conrad scored a penalty against them straight between the posts.
There was just one minute left in the chukka as Georgie took up her position ready for Heath Brompton's throw-in.
The ball was picked up quickly by the Luhmuhlen team. JP had the lead and the others were chasing him down the field. Georgie leaned forward over Belle's neck and as the mare got closer to the action, she manoeuvred to swing back with her mallet. She felt a snag as her stick caught in mid-air and then she glanced back over her shoulder just in time to see Conrad. He had hooked her stick with his own and in one deft move he grasped Georgie's polo stick in his other hand and pulled his mare up as he gave the stick a firm tug.
The sudden, violent yank on the other end of her stick was enough to throw Georgie's balance completely. She lost her stirrups and found herself plummeting straight down to the ground beneath the hooves of the ponies. She was on the field right in the middle of the pack and there was nothing she could do to avoid being trampled apart from curling into a ball, hands wrapped tight over her helmet. She felt a hoof catch her sharply on her right arm and then the pack had cleared and the next thing she knew JP was down on the ground by her side helping her up.
“Are you OK?”
Georgie was shaking with shock. She nodded. “I'm fine.”
Heath Brompton was running across the field towards them. He had a worried look on his face. “Parker, are you all right?”
“I'm fine, sir.”
“Conrad hooked my stick and pulled me out of the saddle.”
Heath Brompton looked shocked. “Is that what happened here, Miller?”
“No, sir,” Conrad shook his head with an expression of pure innocence. “I did hook her stick, but it was an accident and I let go straight away. The real problem is that Parker got her reins tangled in her mare's mane and muddled herself up.”
Georgie couldn't believe it. “That isn't what happened, sir! He did it on purpose! He pulled me off my horse!”
Heath Brompton's already well-grooved brow took on some new furrows as he appeared to consider the possibility of Conrad's guilt. But if he had any doubts about Burghley House's star player he soon dismissed them.