Originally published in Below the Surface 10, May 1999

Stage Fright


Early March, 1981

"Chip, I don’t want you to watch me ride the test on Sunday."

Chip Morton was so surprised he nearly dropped the dishes he was loading into the dishwasher. He carefully placed them into the rack, turned to his wife and took the last few dishes she was holding out to him. "Would you mind repeating that?" he asked as he finished loading the appliance and shut the door. "Because I couldn’t have heard you say what I think I just heard."

Lynn Murtagh Morton leaned back against the kitchen counter. She was wearing the expression that Chip had long since learned to recognize as Lynn wrestling with a difficult subject. Her body language was also screaming discomfort in the way she had her shoulders hunched and her arms wrapped around her waist. But she remained silent, only chewing on her lower lip.

"Spit it out, Lynn," Chip said gently, and turned the dishwasher on.

"I…uh…well…um…." she started, then stopped and frowned. "I don’t want you there when I ride Korby in the test," she rattled off, then turned to look away from him, out the window over the sink.

Chip stared at her in confusion. "Now wait a minute. You have nearly twenty people coming on Sunday to watch you ride in the freestyle, but you don’t want me there?"

Lynn quickly turned to face him and shook her head. "Oh, no! I want you there for the kur. I just don’t want you there for the regular test."

Chip pursed his lips and studied Lynn’s face for a clue as to what she was thinking. "I realize this might be a silly question, but why do you want me there for one and not for the other?"

Lynn couldn’t meet his eyes. "Because I’ll mess up the test if you watch me."

"But you won’t mess up the kur," Chip said, feeling stupid, and knowing he was missing her point completely. "Both of which I’ve watched you ride dozens of times out at San Sarita, with no problem."

Something in his voice must have alerted Lynn to his confusion, because she grimaced. "Oh, man -- I’m making a real mess out of this," she said wryly.

"You might say that," Chip agreed pleasantly. "Would you care to clarify things for poor, stupid me?"

Lynn sighed. "Okay, listen. The test is up here," she said, pointing to her temple. "I have to think about it, really concentrate in order to do it right. But the kur—that’s in here." She placed her palm over her heart. "That makes it easy. I just have to go with the music. I don’t have to think, only feel. If I know you’re watching us ride the test, I won’t be able to concentrate -- but it’ll help if you’re there for the kur. Am I making any sense?" she asked, a plaintive note in her voice.

"Not a bit," Chip said. "But I understood your intent. And that worries me."

Lynn gave him a rueful look. "Yeah -- it ought to. So will you not watch me ride the test?"

"I’ll think about it," Chip told her.

"I was afraid you’d say that," Lynn mumbled.

Chip turned her around and began to massage her shoulders. It never failed—just when he thought he finally had Lynn figured out, she’d come up with something so totally off the wall it would knock him for a loop. Like now.

He could feel her beginning to relax, and knew that Lynn was as well aware as he where that simple, innocuous massage would lead. He lightly kissed the back of her neck and she sighed deeply.

"Commander, do you realize you have a one-track mind?" she asked in a low voice.

"You’ve never minded before, Doctor," Chip reminded her.

"That’s probably because my mind runs on the same track," Lynn said.

"Which is probably the reason we collide so often," Chip suggested.

Lynn turned to him, smiling that lazy smile he knew so well, and twined her arms around his neck. "What do you say we go collide for a while right now?"

Chip grinned. How could he refuse an offer like that? "I thought you’d never ask."

** *** **

Chip was already dressed and waiting with a thermos of coffee when Lynn came out of the master bedroom early the next morning. Chip thought Lynn looked quite professional, dressed in a dark green polo shirt, buff breeches, and high black dressage boots. She usually rode in jeans and paddock boots, but when she was serious about a training session, she dressed more formally. It was a carryover from dressage lessons with Hans Dietrich, her lifelong instructor, who was also her mother’s business and romantic partner – and a man who’d been more of a father to her than her biological father had ever been.

Chip ran an assessing eye over Lynn’s attire. He gave her a slow grin as their eyes met.

"I take it you approve?" Lynn asked dryly.

"Mmmm." Chip shook his head and smiled. "‘Approve’ is such an inadequate word for the way you look in those breeches."

"Thank you," Lynn said as they walked out to the car. "You do wonderful things for my ego."

Chip just grinned over at her as they got into the car and set out for the ranch.

Two of Lynn’s nieces ran out to meet them as Chip parked his painstakingly restored white 1966 Mustang behind the sprawling ranch house at San Sarita. Megan and Bridget, the middle two of the Murtagh children, were dressed in navy polo shirts, tan jodhpurs and brown paddock boots. Megan was a blue-eyed blond like her mother Eileen, but little Bridey looked like a smaller version of Lynn, right down to her strawberry blonde hair and bright green eyes. She even sported the same dusting of freckles across her nose.

"Aunt Lynn! Uncle Chip! Saidhe had her puppies last night! We watched them gettin’ borned!" Bridey said excitedly as Lynn reached into the Mustang’s back seat to retrieve their riding helmets.

"We watched them bein’ born," Megan corrected with a huff, shaking her head and rolling her eyes.

"We watched Saidhe havin’ them," Bridey said, with a glare at her older sister. "There’s a whole bunch of ’em up at the house! Wanna go see ’em?"

"Later, Toots," Lynn said, playing with the little girl’s strawberry blonde ponytail. "I have to work Korby first."

"But we’ll look at the puppies when you’re done, right?" Bridey persisted.

"Of course we will!" Lynn reached down and gave her a quick hug. "Have you ever known me to pass up the chance to go see puppies?"

"Nope!" Bridey acknowledged, with a brilliant smile for her aunt.

"Then we’ll go see them after I ride Rog. Or maybe after breakfast, depending on how hungry Uncle Chip is. Okay?"

"That means after breakfast," Bridey said brightly. " ’Cause he’s always hungry."

"Even the little ones know," Lynn teased, as Chip swung Bridey up into his arms.

"Hey, Little Bridey, are you picking on me?" he asked and kissed her cheek. "Hmmm?"

Bridey threw her arms around his neck and enthusiastically kissed him back. "I’m just teasin!" Chip blew a raspberry against her neck, and Bridey’s delighted peals of laughter rang out. "You gonna ride Berry, Uncle Chip?" she asked, pushing back in his embrace to look him in the eyes.

"After I groom him," Chip confirmed.

"Can I help ya?" Bridey asked.

Chip looked at Bridey. They didn’t call her ‘Lynn Junior’ for nothing. It was easy to see where she got her enthusiasm. And, also like her aunt, she wasn’t one to be put off easily. Though he knew that Bridey’s ‘help’ would likely be limited to nonstop talking, there was no way he could refuse her, even if he’d wanted to. He couldn’t—he’d lost his heart to her as easily as he’d lost it to Lynn. He often wondered if his and Lynn’s children would be anything like her.

"Sure," he said, and lifted Bridey higher, letting her hang upside-down over his shoulder. With Bridey chortling happily, they went off to groom his horse, while Megan went off with Lynn to get Korbel ready.

Diamond Berrybay, a tall plain bay Thoroughbred gelding, had been Chip’s Christmas present from Lynn’s mother and her partner. He was an ex-racehorse, bred by Bridget Murtagh herself, and trained by her to be a show hunter after his racing career was over.

Since none of the Cullen-Murtagh-Dietrich clan ever did anything by halves, the gelding had come cross-country from New Jersey complete with an expensive all-purpose saddle and snaffle bridle with a German silver egg-butt snaffle bit, along with a tack trunk full of anything he or Chip would ever need. He’d also come with his name, and Chip wasn’t about to insult his new in-laws by changing it, even though he had several names he liked better.

Chip liked the horse, but he wasn’t exactly sure of what the horse thought of him. The big bay certainly seemed to like Lynn, but Chip thought that, to the horse, he was just the annoyance who showed up to ride him once or twice a week. But Berry was willing, and had a lot of jump in him—Lynn had been in ecstasy the first time she rode him, and said he could "just pat the ground and jump the moon" after she’d taken him over a few test jumps—and Chip had recently been toying with the idea of showing him in the Amateur-Owner Hunter division at a few local shows.

That wasn’t a prospect for the immediate future, however. It had been a long time—too long—since he’d shown on a serious basis, and he needed to get back into form. He’d been an elite-level Junior rider in his teens, sweeping both the Maclay and USET Medals at age seventeen the year before he’d gone off to Annapolis, but for the past twenty years, his only riding had been done on vacations at his sister Kate’s western New Jersey farm, or an occasional trail ride at a public stable while on leave with one or another of his fellow officers from Seaview. Since Lynn had come into his life, though, it had been impossible to keep horses out of it, because they were so much a part of hers. And to tell the truth, being able to ride on a regular basis again was wonderful. It had been an important part of his life for too long.

Both he and his younger sister had ridden almost before they could walk. Kate had also competed on the East Coast horse show circuit; while the precision required of a rider competing in the upper-level equitation classes suited Chip’s detail-oriented personality perfectly, Kate hadn’t possessed the level of discipline necessary for serious equitation competition, preferring to compete in open junior jumping classes instead, where she had excelled. Kate had gone on to make riding and training her career, and had become very successful at both. She’d made Fox Run Farm, the farm where she and Chip had grown up in Far Hills, New Jersey, into a viable breeding and training enterprise. With her affinity for the horses she rode, her natural athletic ability, and her ultracompetitive nature on Grand Prix jumping courses, she couldn’t have been anything other than successful.

Chip and Bridey led Berrybay from his stall and took him to a grooming bay, where Chip secured the horse in crossties. Bridey perched on a tack trunk and kept up a steady stream of chatter as Chip groomed Berry, and he answered in the appropriate gaps in her narrative. He took his time grooming the elegant bay, who clearly enjoyed the attention as much as Chip enjoyed grooming him. He’d always found grooming a horse to be soothing and relaxing, and now it had become an activity which allowed his mind to wander into milieus far from Seaview and his duties aboard her.

Lynn and Megan soon joined them, Lynn leading an immaculately groomed and turned out-Korbel. Another ex-racehorse, though not one of Diamond Shamrock breeding, the grey was tall, nearly seventeen hands, but typey and very elegant despite his size—in short, the prototypical dressage horse. His silvery coat gleamed with good health and good care. He was also kind, and calm-natured, and not at all what Chip would have expected from an ex-racehorse.

Chip tried to work a particularly nasty tangle out of the bay’s mane. "Another tangle?" Lynn asked, stopping in front of the grooming alcove where Berrybay stood patiently in crossties. "Berry, you’re a mess," she said, her affectionate tone belying her words.

"He was rollin’ in his stall yesterday," Bridey informed them. Berry nodded his head as if in agreement with her words.

"Wonderful," Lynn said dryly. "All we need is for him to cast himself."

"He’s too dumb to know better," Chip said with a little grin.

"That’s your Christmas present you’re talking about," Lynn reminded him in a mock-stern tone.

"That doesn’t make him any smarter," Chip said patiently.

"Korby doesn’t roll in his stall. He’s a lot smarter than Berry, Aunt Lynnie," Bridey said innocently.

"Rog is older," Lynn pointed out, and Chip winced at one of Korbel’s stable names. ‘Korbel’ shortened naturally to ‘Korby’, leading Kevin to call him ‘Roger’ or ‘Rog’, which, as Bridey had once so patiently explained to Chip, was the name of "one of the bad guys" from Star Trek. Since both Lynn and Jack were, like Kevin, long-time Star Trek fans, they’d picked up on the name, too; eventually, the entire family called him by his new name. It wasn’t so surprising, Chip reflected—not in a family which had, among others, one German Shepherd named Spock, and another named Admiral Kirk, who had originally been a captain, but who had been promoted right along with his namesake after the release of the Star Trek movie. The Murtagh clan had even thrown a party for him at the time. It had happened before Chip met Lynn, and he was sorry to have missed it – he’d never attended a wetting-down for a dog.

Korbel made a whuffing noise and nudged Lynn, as if he were impatient to get going, and she laughed—a sharp, bright sound Chip never tired of hearing. "All right, Rog, we’re going. You won’t be much longer, will you?" she asked Chip.

He shook his head. "Thirty minutes or so."

"If the day ever comes that I hear you say ‘half an hour’...." Lynn teased. "Wanna go for a hack when you’re through?"

"Sure," Chip agreed. "Will you be done by then?"

"Yeah," Lynn said, nodding. "This is just a tightener. No real heavy stuff. I don’t want him sour for tomorrow."

"All right. I’ll come by the arena when I’m through."

"Can we go?" Megan and Bridey asked, in perfect unison.

Lynn smiled at the little girls. "You guys have a jumping lesson with Uncle Kevin—who just drove up, by the sound of that engine."

A moment later Kevin Murtagh strolled into the barn, dressed in a faded pair of jeans and a scuffed pair of paddock boots, with a pair of well-worn hunter green suede schooling chaps slung over his right shoulder and his helmet dangling from one hand. "Wow – you’re dressed like you’re loaded for bear. Dad would be proud."

Lynn beamed at him. "Thanks, Kev."

Kevin saw Chip and grinned, the same crooked, irrepressible expression he shared with his twin sister. "Still married, huh?" he asked. "I’ll tell ya, Chip, I don’t know how you put up with her," he said casually as he draped an arm around his twin’s shoulders and pulled her close to give her a one-armed hug.

"And he doesn’t know how I put up with you, either," Lynn shot back, kissing him on the cheek, hugging him back as best she could with Korbel’s reins in one hand. "You’re late."

"Big night last night," Kevin said as he bent to zip on his chaps.

Lynn snorted. "Oh, Kevin, with you they’re all big."

"When you got it, Sis...." Kevin let the sentence trail off suggestively as he gave his sister a crooked grin.

"There are them that do, Kev, and then there are them that only think they do. I have an idea you fall into the latter category," Lynn commented in a dry voice.

"Aren’t we nasty this morning," Kevin said, and from where Lynn couldn’t see him, Chip waved at him to shut up. Kevin caught the gesture and shrugged. "As much as I’d like to stay and chew the fat, Fishface, I have to cut this scintillating conversation short. My eager students await me." He turned to the two little girls. "Meet me down at the lesson ring, okay?"

"Okay," they chorused, and darted off.

"No running in the barn!" Lynn called after them, and both girls slowed to a fast walk "And don’t forget your helmets!" Lynn sighed. "Man, if I had a nickel for every time we heard those phrases when we were growing up…"

"…we’d both be millionaires," Kevin finished.

"Billionaires is more like it," Lynn said.

"I’ll help you tack up the ponies," Chip offered, then turned back to Lynn. "Half an hour?"

Lynn grinned and shook her head. "Will wonders never cease? Yes, Commander. Thirty minutes." With a teasing smile for Chip, Lynn led Korbel from the barn.

"What’s up with her?" Kevin asked, watching his sister leave. "She’s kinda crabby."

Chip quickly filled Kevin in on the situation as they tacked up Megan and Bridey’s Connemara ponies. "She doesn’t want me at the test tomorrow. She’s afraid I’ll distract her."

Kevin listened in silence, then sighed. "Yeah, that’s not surprising. She gets like this at every dressage show if Dad isn’t there. He’s the only one who can keep her centered. It’ll pass, though, once she gets into the arena and rides down the centerline. I knew she was a little jittery about the test -- it’s their first time competing at Fourth Level. She’s not too happy about Jack and me being there, and if we weren’t videotaping the test so she can go over it later herself and send a copy to Dad, I doubt she’d want us there, either." Kevin looked at Chip out of the corner of one green eye. "You’re not gonna go along with it, are ya?"

Chip looked at him sternly. "She doesn’t want me there, Kevin," he said with a touch of exasperation.

"So what? Watch from where she can’t see you." At the perplexed expression on Chip’s face, Kevin laughed. "Never thought of that one, didja?"

"Honestly? No."

"Yeah, well, you’re not sneaky like I am. ’Course, I’ve been dealin’ with Lynnie a lot longer than you have. You can’t let her get away with bein’ silly. You have to put your foot down, show her she’s bein’ a dope and she’ll come around. But give it time. It’ll come to you."

"I’m not sure I could be that dishonest with her," Chip said.

"Yeah – that Canoe U honor code. But it’s not dishonesty -- it’s not letting her get away with being goofy. Tell you the truth, I think she’s nuts for not wanting you there. But hey, you never know—you know Lynnie, she could change her mind at the last minute." Kevin released the pony from the crossties and took the reins of the other pony from Chip. "My public awaits."

Kevin started out of the barn, then stopped and called back over his shoulder at Chip. "She probably wants you there anyway, even if she doesn’t realize it yet. Think about what I said, okay?"

It was all Chip could think about as he finished grooming Berry, tacked him up, and rode down to the dressage arena to meet Lynn. He honestly wanted to be there to watch Lynn ride, but if she felt she wouldn’t do her best with him watching, he didn’t want to ruin the test for her, or damage her trust in him. The decision deserved a lot of careful thought.

Lynn was cantering Korbel in a figure eight as Chip stopped alongside San Sarita’s regulation-size dressage arena. Collected, on the bit, the big grey was moving in a near-perfect frame, his powerful haunches well under him as Lynn rode him along the short side of the arena, then cued him into canter half-passes across the diagonal. His flying changes of lead were smooth and accurate, and Lynn looked very pleased.

"Not bad," Chip called to her as he halted Berrybay alongside the arena.

"Whaddaya mean, not bad? He’s on the money." Lynn slowed the big gelding to a walk and angled him toward Chip and Berry as she left the arena.

"Is he ready?" Chip asked.

"He’s ready," Lynn said.

"Which begs the question -- what about you?"

Lynn took a deep breath, then let it out with a whoosh. "Guess I am too."

She didn’t sound very sure, and Chip decided to let the subject drop.

They rode side by side, the trail leading towards the hills quiet save for birdsong and the occasional cry of a hunting hawk, the soft clop-clop of the horses’ hooves against loam, and Korbel’s rhythmic whuffing as he talked to himself. San Sarita covered a lot of country, with rolling hills and wide grassy meadows, and was populated with Thoroughbreds and Arabians. Most of the Thoroughbreds were recycled racehorses now engaged in a second career as a hunter or a jumper, with the occasional dressage performer, such as Korbel; the mares with the best bloodlines were used as broodmares at Diamond Shamrock or San Sarita. Those that hadn’t been bred by Bridget Murtagh at Diamond Shamrock Farm, the working Thoroughbred breeding and training farm Bridget owned in Colt’s Neck, New Jersey, and raced by her father and older brother under the Diamond Shamrock colors, had been purchased off the track from other owners, or had been claimed out of races. They were then retrained by Bridget, the matriarch of the Murtagh clan. When she was satisfied with their progress, the best of them were kept at Diamond Shamrock and shown by Bridget and Hans, or sent cross-country to San Sarita. The rest were sold as pleasure and show horses, and many had gone on to successful second careers.

The Arabians, from several different strains, belonged primarily to Jack’s wife Eileen. Like the Murtaghs, she’d also grown up on horseback, but where they’d ridden huntseat, and had worked various jobs in the family’s racing stable during their teens and college years, she’d primarily ridden Western and had grown up barrel-racing, pole-bending, showing in cutting horse competitions, and chasing cattle on her parents’ Arabians at their working cattle ranch in northern California. When she and Jack married and took over San Sarita, their wedding present from Eileen’s wealthy parents, they decided to raise both breeds of horses, plus crossbreds of the two, rather than one or the other. They’d been very successful, and San Sarita was known for its well-bred Arabians and Anglo-Arabs, as well as for its well-trained Thoroughbred hunters and jumpers. Jack and Eileen put a lot of time, work and love into their ranch in order to make it a success. That, of course, was when they weren’t running a very successful computer software company—also named San Sarita—or raising kids. There were six at last count, and Lynn and Kevin were sure there’d soon be a seventh on the way.

The Mortons stopped alongside one of the nursery paddocks to look at the sleek mares and curious foals. "I’m very happy with our foal crop this year," Lynn said, leaning forward to straighten Korbel’s mane. "They’re looking really good."

"Our foal crop," Chip repeated, shaking his head.

"Yes – ours. Yours and mine."

"Lynn, I had nothing to do with it," Chip protested. "You bred those mares before we even met."

"Makes no matter," Lynn said. "They’re yours now. All of them – and their babies. And the racers, and the yearlings – the whole kit and kaboodle."

"Only by association," Chip pointed out.

Lynn pointed at her wedding ring. "By this, you mean. And in the official Jockey Club records, too."

Chip shook his head ruefully. "Whatever you say, boss."

"Oh, I like your attitude," Lynn said with a teasing grin. "Hey, two of the San Sarita Arabians have already been sold in utero, just based on their bloodlines," Lynn said as Korbel stretched his head over the fence to touch noses with a curious chestnut foal. "It boggles the mind."

"What does?"

"Buying a foal you haven’t even seen – let alone one that hasn’t even been born yet. I mean, I can see buying a broodmare who’s in foal, but just the unborn foal?" Leaning forward, she scratched the big grey between the ears in consolation as the foal’s dam shepherded her away. "Did I ever tell you how I got this guy?"

Chip shook his head. "Not the details – you just said he was a claimer."

"Well, Dad and my mother were at Belmont Park one afternoon. The horses have to walk along the track to get from the backside to the paddock to be saddled before each race. Anyway, Dad—"

"Hans?" Chip asked wryly. "Your almost-stepfather?"

"Nuh-uh," Lynn corrected. "Dad. He raised me, he gets the honorific. Stepfather is not a word we use in this family."

Chip shook his head. Lynn’s convoluted family relationships -- including her mother’s longtime partnership, both romantic and professional, with Hans Dietrich, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in dressage, highly-decorated Afrika Korps officer in World War II, and former POW -- a relationship that had produced two grown sons, Lynn’s brothers Jack and Donnie -- still hadn’t quite sunken in. Chip thought it would be a while before it truly did.

"Anyway, Korbel—his name was something really silly then, like Dancer’s Virago, which was wrong on so many levels, especially since he doesn’t have any Native Dancer or Northern Dancer blood, and he’s certainly not a virago -- was in a cheap claiming race. He had a lousy racing career, because he just didn’t want to be a racehorse. But when Dad saw him being led into the paddock, he told my mother to have Granda or Uncle Joe claim him fast, because he moved too beautifully to race. Granda did, and he came to Diamond Shamrock."

"And everyone lived happily ever after?" Chip asked, grinning.

"Yeah," Lynn nodded. "I was working in Connecticut at Mystic Aquarium at the time. I came home on a weekend visit a couple of weeks later and I took one look at this guy and fell instantly in love. I’ve always been partial to greys. ’Course, he was a lot darker then, with beautiful dapples—he was only five."

"You brought this horse from a racehorse to Fourth Level dressage in only five years?" Chip asked.

Lynn shook her head. "Not alone, I didn’t. Mom got him out of the racehorse mindset – not that he had much of that to begin with -- and Dad was a big help with his training early on. He’s a natural dressage performer – he picks up new movements so quickly. I feel like I just sit up here and tell him what to do. Dad was even amazed at his ability, and he’s ridden some of the best dressage horses in the world – he’s got two Olympic gold medals to show for it. He says a horse must be treated like a fine champagne and brought along at his or her own pace. That’s why I named this guy Korbel. I’ve learned more from training him than he’s learned from me. He’s a natural. Damn, I just know his foals would have been special."

"Who gelded him?"

Lynn shook her head. "He was already a gelding when we claimed him. Some owner or trainer along the line, but we never found out who, when or why. It’s common enough to geld lower-class animals. Sometimes a colt can act too studdy, and gelding can help him settle down, especially if his owners and trainers don’t think there’ll be any demand for his breeding services. Look at Kelso, Forego, and John Henry. It worked for them, but I can’t help thinking that really great dressage genes were lost when this guy was snipped. Anyway, one of Korby’s trainers probably thought gelding would work for him, too. From what I’ve heard, it didn’t help. He didn’t care. He used to come out of the starting gate like he was going for a stroll in the park. His talents just didn’t lie in racing."

"What if his talents hadn’t run towards dressage? What if he’d been better suited as a hunter or a jumper?"

"Then I’d be riding him in Amateur-Owner hunter or jumper classes. You can’t force any animal to be something he’s not. Gotta go with the flow. That’s why I’ve had so much success with my dolphins. And when you come right down to it, Rog is a lot like my dolphins."

"Aren’t you stretching things a little?" Chip asked skeptically.

"No, really. He’s so...."

"So...what?" Chip prodded. "Grey?" he teased.

"Cute," Lynn shot back. "I think he does this for the fun of it. I’ve seen him doing dressage movements in his paddock, nice as you please, and absolutely correct. Just because he felt like it—because it pleased him. And he’ll do anything I ask him to, nice, easy, no argument. Nice and laid-back. He doesn’t even have any vices, unless you count talking to himself a vice."

They walked Korbel and Berry away from the nursery paddock, following the lane around in a wide curve. To their left came an excited whinny, a challenging bugle that modulated into a cry of greeting. Lynn turned Korbel towards the paddock that paralleled the lane, smiling at the golden-red horse who’d called to them. "Hello, Bugsy. How’s my baby boy?"

The chestnut Arabian stretched his head over the fence, rumbling low in his throat. Lynn reached over and scratched his poll, and the horse closed his eyes and sighed in equine ecstasy.

"You’re such a big baby, Bugs," Lynn said affectionately.

Beside her, Chip shook his head. "You give your horses the strangest names. Bugsy."

"Yeah, Bugsy," Lynn answered, not taking her eyes off the horse.

"What was wrong with Borodin?" he asked with a pained expression.

"Borodin," Lynn said, pronouncing it in the Russian manner, "is the name of a famous Russian composer. And it’s a name he has to grow into. This guy was such a nut when he was a foal. You didn’t know him then. He used to chase butterflies and his shadow, and he’d crowhop around the pasture all day long. He even tried to chase his tail. Did you ever see a horse try to chase his tail? It’s absurd. It’s worse than absurd -- it’s ludicrous. So ‘Bugsy’ fit him perfectly. He just started to look and act like a Borodin a few months ago. But you’ll always be my Bugs, right?" She directed this last to the horse, who seemed to rumble in agreement. Korbel gave a disgruntled-sounding whuff and tossed his head. "And you’re my other big baby, so don’t go gettin’ bent out of shape, okay?" she said, patting the grey’s shoulder.

They resumed their hack, riding along the lane that paralleled Borodin’s paddock. The colt pranced alongside, tossing his head and nickering at Korbel and Berrybay, as if inviting them to play. Both geldings, unimpressed with the younger horse’s antics, pointedly ignored him.

The lane veered away from the paddock, angling toward the hunt course on its way back toward the barn complex. Chip sent Berry over the permanent jumps. The bay seemed to levitate over each jump, tucking his knees far up under his chin and rounding his back beautifully. Lynn, however, chose to ride around the jumps. Korbel had been trained to jump, and she loved jumping him, often sending him over the hunt course or the jumps in the large jumping arena for a change of pace, to keep him from going sour. But Lynn didn’t want to risk injuring him the day before the test, so she took him on the easy way around the course.

Two of the teenaged girls who worked part-time at the ranch came out to take the horses from the Mortons as they dismounted, and when Lynn didn’t protest their attentions, Chip didn’t either. They normally put their own horses away after a ride, using the time to interact with the horses, and to check for any injury or unsoundness that might have developed during the ride. But Lynn suddenly looked edgy to Chip, and when she headed for the house without a word, he followed.

Lynn changed to jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers while Chip washed up and headed for the kitchen. As usual, Eileen had put out a big breakfast spread, and while Chip hated to impose on Eileen, Lynn wouldn’t let him refuse the offer, on the grounds that it would hurt Eileen and insult Jack. Feeling that it was her family, and she knew best, Chip went along with her, rationalizing that they must be used to it, with Kevin spending almost all of his time there. Lynn had always spent a lot of her time there before they were married, and Chip was glad she had somewhere to go while he was away on Seaview.

Breakfast was the usual noisy affair, with six children and five adults around the large table, discussing horses, dogs, and weekend show plans. Several of the household dogs lay near the table, patiently waiting for any leftovers, while J.J.McCool, the umbrella cockatoo, exhorted everyone present to "Gimme goodies!" from his playstand near the sliding door to the deck.

When they finished eating, Bridey and Megan waylaid Chip and Lynn and took them to the finished basement to see the latest litter of German Shepherd puppies in their whelping box in the family room. Saidhe was a good-natured dog and an experienced mother, and didn’t blink an eye at Chip’s presence. She lay there and nursed her babies while Lynn picked each one up and nuzzled them.

The two little girls monopolized Chip’s attention with questions about his opinion of the litter. After the appropriate comments and compliments about the nine mewling new additions, he turned and realized that Lynn was gone.

Hurrying upstairs, he found Lynn outside. She and Eileen were standing alongside Chip’s Mustang, deep in what seemed to be a serious discussion. Chip noticed that Lynn was wearing that particularly distant expression she had whenever something bothered her. Eileen was talking intently to Lynn, and Chip knew without hearing any of their conversation exactly what they were discussing.

"Ready?" he asked softly as he walked up to them.

"Guess so," Lynn said. "See ya tomorrow, Ikey."

"Bright and early, Lynn," Eileen acknowledged. "And stop worrying! You’ll do fine."

"Yes, Mom," Lynn said with a little grin, and got into the car.

Chip took the long way home, thinking that a drive along the coast would relax Lynn. He must have been right, because Lynn was asleep minutes later. He didn’t see any point in wasting such a nice day, so he kept driving, right on past the turnoff for their townhouse development.

He stopped at a Kentucky Fried Chicken drive-up for a bucket of fried chicken plus several sides, hoping to distract her with one of her favorite addictions. Lynn woke as Chip passed the food between the seats into the Mustang’s back seat.

"Is that smell what I think it is?" she asked sleepily.

"What do you think it is?" Chip countered with a little smile.

Lynn sniffed the air. "It is what I think it is. You’re sweet."

"I know," Chip said, glad he had stopped. It was the little things that always touched Lynn, like a new pen or a book, a carton of strawberries or a bucket of fried chicken, and he tried to indulge her as often as possible.

"Pretty far from home, aren’t we?" Lynn asked, looking out the window curiously.

Chip took his right hand off the wheel and took Lynn’s left hand. "I indulged myself while you were asleep."

"Oh. Well, I guess it’s a nice day for a drive." She didn’t sound very enthusiastic.

"We can be home in twenty minutes," Chip offered.

"I think I like that idea."

Chip turned the car around.

** *** **

Lynn headed for the shower as soon as she walked through the door of their townhouse. Based on past experience, Chip knew she’d remain under the spray for a good twenty minutes or so, and when she came out, she’d want to sit on the couch, talk, and cuddle. Neither one was ever much of a hardship for him.

Chip made a fresh pot of coffee, placed it beside two mugs and a box of Oreos on a tray, added the bucket of chicken and the french fries, and took the whole array into the living room to wait for Lynn.

When Lynn came out of their bedroom, she was dressed in cutoffs and a t-shirt from Bruce Springsteen’s 1978 concert tour, and smelling like Irish Spring soap and Johnson’s baby powder. She smiled when she saw the coffee and Oreos. "You know my vices so well. What did I ever do to deserve you?" she asked Chip as she curled against him, kissing his cheek.

"The same thing I did to deserve you," he replied, settling her against his side.

"Which is?"

"I’ll let you know when I find out," Chip said. It was a game they’d played almost from the first, but Chip wasn’t completely kidding. He really did wonder what he’d done right to deserve her.

"Okay," Lynn said, leaning forward to fill the mugs and portion the chicken, french fries, and biscuits.

Chip ate five good-sized pieces of chicken, causing Lynn to shake her head in disbelief. "I don’t know where you put it all," she said.

"I have a very active metabolism," Chip replied.

"You can say that again. Can I get a snuggle?" she asked softly.

"Nerves?" he asked knowingly.

"A major league case," Lynn admitted.

Chip pulled her into his lap, where she settled her head against his shoulder. All she wanted was to be held and comforted, and he was glad to oblige. Lynn prided herself on her independence, so hard-won after growing up the only girl in a family of three brothers and four male cousins, so prized as she made her way in a male-dominated specialty. She wasn’t one to admit she ever felt less than perfect, or to accept much coddling no matter how bad she felt; when Chip usually tried, he received one of her ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ looks, one she had perfected over the years on Kevin and Jack. Whenever she admitted she needed comforting, though, Chip was more than happy to oblige. So he held her, and stroked her hair, kissing her forehead occasionally, and soon Lynn was fast asleep in his arms.

An incredible feeling of contentment and rightness washed over him. Times like these reminded him of just how soft and vulnerable she could be at times, despite the independent face she presented to the rest of the world. He knew he was the only one who saw the woman inside. Even Jack and Kevin, as close as they were to their beloved sister, didn’t really know her, not as Chip did—and, truth be told, he liked it that way.

Chip dozed off too, and slept for nearly two hours. At some point, Lynn had eased off his lap, and Chip woke to find her lying stretched out on the couch, her head pillowed on his lap, an afghan pulled up over her bare legs. Since she was still asleep, apparently peacefully, Chip didn’t dare move. He found he was just barely able to reach the latest crossword book Lynn had bought, so he propped the book on the arm of the couch and kept busy by working on a giant puzzle for the next hour.

After Lynn finally woke in mid-afternoon, they spent the rest of the day quietly, watching old WWII movies and collaborating on more crossword puzzles—which Lynn insisted upon doing in ink, to Chip’s amusement. After an early dinner of microwaved fried chicken and an evening of old John Wayne movies, they went to bed early, knowing the morning would come all too quickly.

** *** **

When the alarm jolted Chip awake at five AM on Sunday, he noticed that Lynn had already risen. From the look of the bed, he surmised she’d been gone quite a while. He found her standing out on the deck, leaning on the railing and staring off into the trees that bordered the rear of their development, tapping her foot against the wooden planking of the deck as she idly twirled the belt of her terry robe.

"Pre-show jitters?" he asked as he came up behind her.

Lynn nodded, turned to face him, and pushed herself up to sit on the wide wooden railing of the deck. "Antsy. I get like this whenever I show. I couldn’t sleep, and I didn’t want to wake you, so I got up."

Chip placed his hands on the railing on either side of her thighs. "You didn’t wake me. That thing you call an alarm clock did. Seaview’s alarm klaxons are softer."

"Sorry," Lynn apologized. "I should have shut it off and let you sleep. You can go back to bed, if you want. You don’t have to come out to San Sarita with me if you don’t want to—you’ll only get roped into doing the donkey work along with everyone else. You can meet us out at the showgrounds later on."

"I don’t mind doing the donkey work," he assured her.

"That’s good, because there’ll be an awful lot of that today," Lynn told him.

"Lynn, I’ve shown before, remember?" Chip asked gently. "I’m not new to what goes into prepping for a show."

"Yeah, right. Don’t mind me. It’s just nerves talking," Lynn said, but she didn’t sound too convinced of it herself.

"I know. Relax. You’ll do fine today," Chip assured her.

"So you say," she muttered.

"So I know. You couldn’t do anything else. Now go take a shower, and I’ll start breakfast," Chip said, and steered an unprotesting Lynn towards the bathroom.

Lynn only picked at her scrambled eggs and bacon, but she ate all her toast and drank three cups of coffee. Once in the Jeep, she drummed the fingers of her right hand relentlessly against the wheel as she drove, keeping time with the music on the radio.

San Sarita was a study in controlled pandemonium when they arrived. Jack had already left for the Earl Warren Showgrounds with the first vanload of horses, leaving Kevin to drive the second van. Eileen was driving the Winnebago the family would use as a headquarters, and to change in.

Lynn loaded Korbel herself, crooning to the big grey as she guided him to his stall in the van. Then she returned to the stallion barn to get Borodin. She hadn’t entered Borodin in any classes but she wanted the four-year-old colt to get a feel for the hustle and bustle of a show.

Soon all the horses were loaded—seasoned travelers all, except for Borodin, they presented no problem in loading—and they were off to the showgrounds, an easy fifteen-minute drive from the ranch.

The Pacific Coast All-Breed Show had been in session at the Showgrounds since the previous Wednesday, but the San Sarita contingent was showing only in the Sunday classes. Sean and Catie, the two eldest Murtagh children, were to show in Junior Jumpers early in the morning, then in Huntseat Equitation immediately after; Megan was to show in her age division of Junior Pony Hunters Ages Over Fences, while Bridey was entered in Junior Pony Hunters On the Flat in her age division. Even little Patrick, nearly four, was entered in a Leadline class, with his mother leading him around the ring on Keeler, his fat little Welsh Mountain Pony. The only one not entered was nine-month-old Shannon, who was dressed in a baby-sized New York Yankee outfit, complete with baseball cap.

But it was the adult classes that held the most interest for the San Sarita contingent. Jack had three horses entered in the Working Hunter Division, while Eileen had two hunters entered in several classes in the Conformation Hunter Division. Kevin had two of his more experienced jumpers entered, one in the speed class to be held in the early afternoon and one in the Grand Prix to be held later that evening. He was up for the occasion, positive he had two sure winners in his speed horse, Friday’s Child, and in Enterprise Incident, his Grand Prix mount.

And then there were the dressage classes. Lynn had entered Korbel in the Fourth Level test, his first at that level. Then he was to go in the Fourth Level freestyle about two hours later. The regular test was a set sequence of movements, while the freestyle, more interesting to the casual spectator, was a freestyle ride set to music of the rider’s choice, and could be ridden in any manner chosen by the rider, as long as certain mandatory movements of the appropriate level were included in the ride. It was judged on artistic merit as well as technical ability.

The morning went fairly quickly. Sean and Catie did well in their Jumper class, taking a third place and a second place, respectively. Sean was a bolder rider than his older sister, but Catie was more careful, and her ride on Paradise Syndrome, while a bit slower than her brother’s ride on A Piece of the Action, was faultless. Catie took a blue in the Equitation class, while Sean finished second to her. Megan and Bridey acquitted themselves well in their classes, bringing home a blue ribbon apiece, and even little Patrick won a ribbon. The fact that everyone else in his class had won the same pale green ribbon was immaterial to the proud little boy. He went around showing his ribbon to anyone who would take the time to look at it. The San Sarita hunters went well for Jack and Eileen, with Alternative Factor heading for a sure championship in his division, and Catspaw heading for a reserve championship in hers.

And then it was time for the dressage classes. Korbel was immaculately turned out, as ready as Lynn could make him. She had groomed him until he shone, taking out a lot of her insecurities by wielding the curry comb and dandy brush on his pale grey coat shone, and now he shone with a silvery luminescence. She’d done up his white mane in a dressage braid which looked utterly complicated but was, in reality, ridiculously simple.

His tack was also immaculate. A firm believer in the proper equipment for any task, Lynn hadn’t scrimped on his tack. The black dressage saddle had cost her a small fortune, but she considered it money well spent. Imported from Germany, it had a deep seat and thin flaps, so she could feel Korbel’s movements with as little interference as possible. His snaffle bridle was also German-made, of flat black leather with contrasting white leather inserts on the browband. The German silver D-ring snaffle bit gleamed, sparkling in the bright sunlight whenever Korbel moved his head the slightest amount. The black leather of his tack contrasted against his glowing coat.

To Chip’s eyes, Lynn looked just as good as her horse. She was wearing gleaming high black boots, a sleeveless white shirt with a matching stock tie, and tight white breeches with inserts in soft white suede on the seat and the inner parts of the legs, to help her grip the saddle better during the movements which called for Korbel to extend himself fully. Her hair was pulled back into a tight chignon and covered by a black hairnet that sparkled with rhinestones, and she wore the diamond stud earrings Chip had given her for Christmas. Her regulation navy dressage coat and black derby rested atop the saddle.

Lynn’s knuckles were white on the reins as Korbel nudged her hip, looking for the horse treats she usually carried in her back pocket. "Cut it out, Rog," she scolded. "You’ll yuck me up."

"Yuck you up?" Chip asked, barely able to suppress a grin at Lynn’s seriousness.

"Now, how will I look riding a dressage test with horse dribble on my butt?" she challenged.

"Your butt looks fine no matter what," Chip said with a little grin.

"Will you please be serious!" Lynn implored him.

"Okay," Chip conceded, and kissed her forehead. "Cut it out, Rog."

"I wanna go home," Lynn said plaintively, hiding her face against his chest.

"It’s too late for that now," Chip said amiably, giving her a reassuring hug.

At the mention of time, Lynn checked her watch, then licked her lips and looked up at Chip. "It’s time for us to hit the warmup ring." She shrugged on her dressage coat, placed her derby firmly on her head, tugged on her white gloves, and stood for Chip’s inspection. "How do I look?"

"Cool and elegant. Will you be disqualified if I hug you?" he asked.

Lynn threw her arms around his neck. "I’ll fall apart if you don’t." Then she drew back. "You’re staying, aren’t you?" It was more a statement than a question.

Chip nodded slowly and waited for her reaction.

Lynn hugged him again. "Good. I’m so glad."

Chip looked as confused as he felt, and Lynn blushed, ducking her head. "Don’t ask me for an explanation now. Just know that I need you here." And with that, she mounted Korbel, riding away to the practice ring without a backward glance.

Chip followed, stunned by her abrupt turnabout. He’d been prepared to argue with her to justify his remaining to watch the test, and Lynn had completely thrown him. Only half-paying attention, he watched Lynn put Korbel through the warmups he’d need to prepare him for the test, performing the suppling exercises that would improve their chances for a good score. Lynn rode with the stirrups crossed over Korbel’s withers, helping her to obtain the deep seat she would need for a successful test.

Then her name was called. Lynn picked up her stirrups, made a slight adjustment to her seat, then turned Korbel, riding him past Chip’s position. She looked at him, winked, blew him a kiss, finishing up with her familiar casual two-fingered salute.

Chip almost wished her luck, but something made him keep his mouth shut. Lynn already knew he wished her luck, and didn’t need to be told the obvious. Instead, he walked over to the bleachers and found a good seat, one where he had an unobstructed view of the entire arena. He could see Kevin near the entrance, Jack on the opposite side of the arena from where Chip sat, both with their camcorders at the ready. Then Lynn entered the ring, and he turned his attention to her.

To Chip, she didn’t seem to be nervous at all as she rode the big grey into the arena. She rode up to the judges’ stand at the far end of the ring, halted Korbel squarely, saluted the two men and one woman acting as the Fourth Level judges in a smart, quick manner, then began the test.

Chip was no expert on the finer points of dressage, but as far as he could tell, she rode the test perfectly. He’d often wondered what made Lynn take up something as regimented as dressage. Its precise nature seemed to him to be the complete antithesis of Lynn’s spontaneous, ebullient personality. But, from what he’d seen of the trophies in the display cases at San Sarita, she did very well in her chosen discipline. Perhaps all the contradictions existed only in his imagination. They certainly didn’t appear to bother Lynn.

Lynn sat Korbel as if she were glued to the saddle. Korbel’s attitude was relaxed and attentive, his forehand light, dappled hindquarters well-engaged beneath him. His transitions between gaits were impeccable, and while he didn’t have a practiced eye where dressage was concerned, Chip couldn’t tell that Lynn was giving the gelding any cues at all. But he did everything she asked of him, and by the time she saluted again at the end of the test and let Korbel walk out of the arena on a loose rein, there was a little cat’s grin on her face that told Chip she was as pleased as she could be.

Lynn restrained herself until she met Chip behind the bleachers. When her fault scores went up, she whooped and jumped down into his arms. "I’ve never had scores like these! Never! Not ever!" She pulled away from Chip to hug Korbel and planted a kiss on his soft dark grey muzzle. Then she again turned her attention to Chip, hugging and kissing him. He relinquished her as she was surrounded by the rest of her family, all ready to congratulate her. Then, after stripping off Korbel’s tack and returning him to the van to await his next test, they all moved to the main ring to watch Kevin ride in his first jumping class.

The course was intended to be difficult for a horse and rider, with challenging jumping efforts and sharp turns. The jump-off was a hotly-contested battle between Kevin and six other riders who had gone clean in the first round, but Kevin ended up the winner by eleven hundredths of a second, largely due to the speed and agility of his Quarter Horse/Thoroughbred crossbred mount. Friday’s Child maneuvered the tight and trappy jump-off course easily, thanks to her Quarter Horse forbears, with her Thoroughbred ancestors giving her the speed she needed to get around the course in the fastest time and the scope she needed to take the jumps successfully.

The non-family portion of Lynn’s cheering section began to show up towards the end of the jump-off. Mark Tomlinson was the first to arrive, with Bob Shaughnessey and his young daughter Beth right behind. They were followed by Nick Costello, Pete Holmfeld, and Dave Cousins and his wife and kids. Larry and Lisa Baker, their two small children in tow, were accompanied by Bobby O’Brien, and Lucius Emery strolled up just behind them.

Angie and Dennis Pierce arrived on their heels, and Angie made a beeline for Lynn’s side. "Whoa," Angie said at Lynn’s attire. "Now those are tight pants. What does blue eyes think about them?"

Lynn rolled her eyes. "Blue eyes has seen women wearing riding breeches for most of his life," she said dryly.

"Yeah, but he hasn’t seen them on you," Angie pointed out.

"Sweetie, he’s seen me wearing them since November."


Lynn just gave her a smug smile and walked away.

"I want more details than that!" Angie called, then followed Lynn. Laughing, Dennis followed his wife.

Chip nearly choked when he saw Lee Crane walk up with Lynn’s irrepressible secretary, Maureen Garrity. "You’re not—." He was unable to finish the sentence. "You didn’t--."

"No," Lee grinned as Maureen greeted Lynn, then walked away to talk to her sister Eileen. "We’re not together. We happened to meet in the parking lot, and she showed me where you all were."

"My faith in human nature has been restored," Chip said, relieved.

Lee shook his head and smiled at Lynn as she came over to join them. "How’d you do?"

Lynn smiled hopefully at him, then reached up to give him a hug. "Pretty well, score-wise. I won’t know where we finished until the final entrants ride and they compile all the scores and post them. Give it about an hour. My fingers are all crossed."

"Hey, Doc!"

They all turned to see Seaview’s self-styled Dolphin Detail bounce up behind them. Kowalski and Riley, trailed by Patterson, carried a banner between them, reading "Go, Doctor M!" in day-glo green letters.

"Look what we made for you!" Riley said enthusiastically.

"Yeah," Kowalski put in. "We’re gonna hold it up when you ride."

With a straight face, Chip took them off to one side. "Listen. Ski, Stu. We appreciate the sentiment, but you can’t hang that up near the arena."

"Why not?" Riley asked.

"Because it might spook some of the horses," Chip explained gently.

"So what can we do with it?" Kowalski asked, looking extremely crestfallen.

Jack came to Chip’s rescue. "It would look great on the Winnebago. Come on, guys, I’ll show you where we’re parked."

Lynn was smiling as Chip came back to her. "That was so sweet of them."

"Very," he said, then his eyes widened as he caught sight of the new arrival approaching from behind Lynn. "Good afternoon, Admiral."

Lynn’s eyes widened in shock until Chip thought they were about to take over her entire face. Then she spun around. "Hi," she said in a squeaky voice. "We, uh, weren’t expecting you. Were we?" she asked Chip.

"No, we weren’t," he confirmed. "What, uh, brings you here, sir?" he asked, wondering if Lee had known that Nelson was planning to show up. A quick glance at his friend showed that Lee seemed to be as surprised as everyone else.

"I’ve never seen a freestyle dressage competition before, and I thought this might be interesting. Especially since it’s being ridden by one of my best marine biologists," Nelson answered, his blue eyes twinkling. He seemed to be quite pleased with himself, and Chip thought he’d never looked more like an oversized leprechaun than at that very moment.

The compliment seemed to have gone sailing right over Lynn’s head. Her eyes were still wide, and she was about to demolish her derby at any second. Chip unobtrusively took it away from her.

Jack sidled up to Chip. "Take her for a walk to calm her down."

Chip turned to face him. "Think it’ll work?"

Jack shrugged. "It’s worth a try. I wish my father was here – he’s got the knack of keeping her focused at a show."

"He might not even be able to help in this situation, Jack."

"Maybe not -- but get her out of here and get her mind off him," Jack said, jerking his chin in Nelson’s direction.

"Right," Chip said, then turned back to face Lynn and Nelson. "Excuse us, Admiral. I think Korbel needs our attention," Chip said.

He took Lynn’s arm and led her away from the assembly as Bridey started to interrogate Nelson. "If you’re an admiral, how come you’re not wearin’ a uniform? Arent’cha s’posed ta?" Chip heard her ask as he steered Lynn towards the concessions area.

"Now, don’t let this rattle you," he cautioned Lynn, wondering if Nelson would survive his encounter with Bridey.

"What is he doing here? I can’t ride with him watching me!" Lynn sounded frantic at the thought.

"Of course you can. He’s only another spectator," Chip reminded her.

"No, he’s not. He’s the Admiral," Lynn corrected.

"So he’s the Admiral. Your biological father’s an admiral, and so’s your Uncle Pete. Would it upset you to have them watch?" Chip challenged.

"Of course not," Lynn said, exasperated. "My biological father? Like he’d even care. He’s never ever bothered to watch me ride and he never will. Uncle Pete’s seen me ride plenty of times. But they’re just plain admirals. Neither one of them is the Admiral. Admiral Nelson is. And he’s three thousand miles away, besides. The sperm donor, I mean, not the Admiral. I wish he was. The Admiral, I mean, not my biological father. I just wish Dad wasn’t on the other side of the continent."

"That is one of the most confusing things I’ve ever heard you say," Chip said. "And I understood every word."

"Then you should be very worried."

"Whatever you say," Chip said agreeably and kept walking, having learned the futility of arguing with Lynn when she was in this sort of mood.

They stopped in front of the Miller’s Saddlery sales booth. "I thought you were taking me to see Korbel," Lynn said, looking at, but not seeing the display of snaffle and Pelham bits.

"In your condition?" Chip asked. "You’re so nervous, you’ll have him jumping out of his hide."

"So where are you taking me?"

"Nowhere. And everywhere. I’m going to pretend you’re a skittish horse and walk you until you’re calm."

"Jack squealed," Lynn accused.

Chip ignored that. "And when you are calm, we’ll go back and watch the terrier races," Chip said patiently.

"We will?"

"We will," Chip confirmed, steering her out of the booth.

"Aye, sir," Lynn said with a resigned smile.

They toured the fairgrounds, window-shopped at the booths of various vendors, admired different horses, shared a funnel cake and a large soda at the food court, and watched the tenacious little Jack Russell Terriers compete in the terrier races. When one caught the lure, Lynn laughed out loud in glee. Seeing how taken Lynn was with the feisty and bouncy little dogs, Chip solicited business cards from several of the breeders present. With Lynn’s birthday a few months away, a pup might make an excellent present.

When they returned to the San Sarita contingent, the rest of Borderline had arrived. John Cutter, Elliot Nichols and Susan Wallace stood talking to Jack and Eileen.

Kevin stood slightly apart, pacing nervously back and forth. He strode over to Chip and Lynn as they walked up. "I thought you cut and ran. What happened?" he asked, studying his sister’s face.

"A minor attack of nerves when Admiral Nelson got here," Chip answered. "She’ll be okay now."

"Well, you got back just in time. The overall scores for Fourth Level are going up. Look," Kevin said, pointing to the toteboard.

Lynn gasped as she saw her name listed in third place. "Third? On our first test at this level? I don’t believe it!" She accepted everyone’s congratulations with a somewhat dazed expression.

"I said you could do it," Chip said as he hugged her.

"Third! Chip, we took third!" Lynn said in awe. "In a class that size? It’s unbelievable!"

"Listen, Lynnie," Kevin said. "You ride that kur of yours like you’ve been doin’ it at home and you’ll have first place sewn up. Maybe overall champ, too."

"Somehow I doubt that," Lynn muttered.

"Don’t," Kevin ordered. "How many of these other guys are musicians? That kur you wrote is musically perfect. Timing, tempo, everything. And Korby’s gaits fit the music perfectly. Nobody else can come anywhere near it. Just watch," Kevin assured her.

"I hope you’re right," Lynn said, her skepticism plain on her face.

"I always am," Kevin said confidently.

"Now where have I heard that before?" Chip mused, looking skyward.

The loudspeaker over their heads blared into life. "Will all Fourth Level freestyle competitors please assemble at the holding area?"

Lynn took a deep breath. "That’s me, gang." She looked at Chip. "Do you have my tape?"

He patted his shirt pocket. "Right here."

"I’ll take care of Rog," Kevin volunteered. "You stay and watch the other entries. I’ll tack Korby up and lead him around for you."

"Thanks, Kevvie," Lynn said. "Well, here goes nuthin’," she muttered to Chip.

"Only if you make it that way," he said firmly.

"Right. Here goes everything."

Chip smiled and gave s single, sharp nod. "That’s better."

"That depends on your point of view," Lynn shot back.

At the dressage arena, Lynn handed her tape over to the show official responsible for the arena’s sound system, gave her ride plan in to the judges, and drew her position—sixth of six.

"I don’t know if that’s good or bad," she said to Chip as they walked back to the bleachers to watch the other riders.

"You’ll know what you have to beat, at least," Chip pointed out.

"Yeah, but they might be so impressed or disgusted by the five in front of me that they won’t pay me any attention." At Chip’s glare, she shrugged. "All right. That was a dumb thing to say. I just want to get this over with. I hate waiting that long to go. It makes me too nervous. I never liked going last in a jumping round, either."

Angie waved as they walked over to the bleachers, and Chip and Lynn took the seats she’d saved for them. "Nervous?" Angie asked.

"Don’t say that word," Chip warned. "I just got her calmed down."

Bobby O’Brien, seated directly behind Chip, leaned forward and got Lynn’s attention. "So tell me, Lynn. What song are you using?"

Lynn shook her head. "I’m not tellin’. You can find out just like everybody else, Bobby. When I ride to it."

"Hey, Lynn, that’s not fair," Seaview’s young diving officer said.

"I think it’s very fair," Chip said.

"I will say one thing about it, Bobby," Lynn said with a little smile.

"What?" he asked eagerly.

"You don’t know it." Lynn’s smile widened.

"Wanna make a bet?" O’Brien challenged.

Next to him, Larry Baker groaned, and rolled his eyes at Chip. "Here we go again."

"How’s ten bucks sound?" Lynn asked, her eyes lighting up.

"High stakes. You’re on," he said, then frowned. "Hey, wait a minute. It’s not one you and Kevin wrote, is it? Or Jack?"

Lynn laughed. "Nope. It’s professional. You may have even heard it on the radio."

"Then the ten bucks is as good as in my pocket," O’Brien said smugly.

"Ah, the confidence of youth," Chip said. Beside him, Larry Baker snickered and shook his head.

"Of course, it’s not the original recording," Lynn said. "We—Borderline, that is—recorded it ’specially for the ride."

"And we did a great job, too. Even if I do say so myself," Jack said smugly.

"I knew there was a catch," O’Brien said.

Lynn shook her head. "No catch, Bobby. We were faithful to the original. Tell ya what—I’ll give Jack arbitration rights."

"He’s your brother!" O’Brien complained, looking at Chip for help. Chip shook his head and held up his hands in a ‘leave me out of this one’ gesture, and O’Brien groaned.

"But I’m honest, Lieutenant," Jack said over O’Brien’s shoulder, in a voice that invited no argument. "How many notes does he get, Lynnie?"

"Give him the first bar," Lynn replied.

"Generous, aren’t you?" Larry Baker asked.

"I’m feeling expansive this afternoon."

Their banter ceased as the announcer called the first competitor into the ring. A woman mounted on a large bay warmblood entered the arena to the beginning notes of Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff.

"She’s riding to disco?" Jack asked, an incredulous expression on his face.

"Disco and dressage?" Lynn asked. "Where can you insert a canter in this song?"

"No place I know," Eileen said flatly.

"Are you feeling better now?" Chip asked.

"A little," Lynn said, and turned her attention back to the arena to analyze the ride. She maintained a running commentary to keep Chip informed.

The horse’s trot was strong, but he was just barely able to keep up with the fast tempo of the song. But when the woman cued him into a canter, the entire ride fell apart. The canter’s three-beat tempo didn’t match the disco beat, and the fluidity of the horse’s previous movements was not sustained. The ride ended on a well-executed collected trot that was sure to catch the eyes of the judges, but the jarring canter sequence was sure to lower her marks.

After the grounds crew raked the arena, a man mounted on a large rawboned chestnut entered the ring. His ride, set to the tune of Glenn Miller’s In the Mood, was more suitable to the song he had chosen, but Lynn wasn’t satisfied. She would have changed several segments of the kur, she told Chip, and used extended canter in place of the collected canter that the man had chosen to ride across the diagonal.

After another re-dressing of the arena’s loam, a woman riding a jet-black Thoroughbred walked in, to another Donna Summer song—this time, to Dim All the Lights. The band members were incredulous.

"More disco?" Susan Wallace asked.

"It must be contagious," Dave Cousins put in.

"I thought disco was dead," John Cutter drawled.

"But obviously not forgotten," Chip said dryly with a side glance at Lynn. Nerves or no nerves, the performances of the three other riders were having a cheering effect on her. They weren’t anywhere near as good as she was, and everyone knew it. Unless something totally unforeseen occurred, Lynn had first place all sewn up.

And then the fourth rider entered the ring. Everyone there could immediately see that, unlike the previous three, this rider knew his business. He sat tall and straight, his legs in close contact with his mount, a stunning bay, who entered the ring at a beautifully-framed collected trot, right up the centerline to finish at a dead square halt.

"I’m in trouble," Lynn said in a small voice.

Chip turned to look at her, but just as quickly turned back to the arena to watch the pair. The rider had chosen a classical piece. Chip didn’t recognize it, but he realized that this might not be a very good time to ask Lynn who the composer was.

Jack Murtagh pushed between O’Brien and Baker to take the seat behind Lynn. "He’s not as good as you are," he said in a low voice.

"Pep talk time?" Lynn asked, peering over her shoulder.

"Do you need one?" Jack shot back.

"Yes," Chip put in, before Lynn could open her mouth.

Lynn shot an irritated glance at him, then nodded. "He’s right -- I do."

"Okay," Jack said, leaning forward. "Watch him. Mozart or no Mozart, he’s got problems. He’s good, but the rhythm’s slightly off at the trot, and his upward transitions are just a little too late each time. And he’s not going deep enough into the corners—he cuts them, see? And the horse? He’s nice-looking, all right, but he’s on his forehand, and he’s not as balanced as Korby. See his tail swish? He’s fightin’ the bit, too, and he’s not as collected as he could be."

Chip listened. Jack had gone right to the salient points of the ride, knowing exactly what would make an impression on his sister.

Chip watched Lynn’s face. Jack’s words had clearly made an impression. "Yeah," Lynn said thoughtfully, brightening visibly. "Yeah...."

"If you weren’t so nervous, you’d have seen it for yourself. But that’s what big brothers are for." Jack reached forward to rumple her hair, then pulled his hand back with an exaggerated gesture. "Oh, I know—mustn’t muss you. Chin up, okay?" he asked, with a side glance at Chip. "You’ll be all right. You’re better than they are."

"I hope so," Lynn said, but there was no sign of dejection in her voice.

"We know so," Chip said, putting his arm around her shoulders, with a grateful smile at Jack.

As the fourth rider left the ring, Lynn stood. "Okay. I’m off." As Chip stood, Lynn caught Admiral Nelson’s eye. "Hang on to your seat, Sir, or you might get blown away." With a wink at Lucius, she was off. Chip followed, shaking his head at Lynn’s unexpected caprice.

Kevin led Korbel over as they walked up. "You’ve got it made, Sis," he said, holding Korbel as Chip gave Lynn a leg up.

Lynn bent to pat Kevin’s head. Kevin grinned and gave her a thumbs-up, then gave her boots a quick wipe with a rag to remove ring dust. "He’s my rabbit’s foot," she explained to Chip, who nodded and tried to hide his amusement. "Keep ’em crossed anyway, Kev." Then she leaned out of the saddle to kiss Chip. "You too," she whispered.

"As far as I’m concerned, you’re already the winner," Chip said firmly.

Lynn grinned, blew him another kiss, and cued Korbel forward. She watched the fifth rider from a vantage point just outside the warmup arena. The woman was obviously overmounted -- a relative beginner on a horse too high-strung and too well-trained for her. The test fell apart within the first few movements, and she voluntarily withdrew.

Chip and Kevin moved to a better vantage point as Lynn trotted Korbel into the arena to the strains of her own piano, and Bob Seger’s Against the Wind.

Lynn’s entrance was far more dramatic than those of the previous riders. The tall grey gelding seemed to float across the loam on a powerful extended trot across the diagonal, then moved directly into a perfectly cadenced collected trot across the end of the arena. As the tempo of the music changed, so did Korbel’s gaits. From extended canter to collected canter, collected trot to extended trot, canter half-pass with flying lead changes, his transitions were flawless, his gaits perfectly in tempo with the music.

Chip shot a glance over towards the bleachers. The various Murtaghs wore wide grins, Borderline’s members were all singing along with the music, with Susan playing an imaginary set of drums in the air. Even Lucius and the Admiral seemed to be impressed. Eileen was gesturing towards the ring as she talked to Seaview’s officers, apparently explaining one of the ride’s finer points.

As Lynn and Korbel executed a counter-canter, spinning off into a half-pirouette on the left lead, Kevin clapped Chip on the shoulder. "She’s got this one locked up!" he said gleefully. "Nobody can touch her—not now! Look at them!"

Chip had to agree with his brother-in-law. He thought Lynn must agree, too—at least, she looked like she did, from the smile on her face as she cantered past.

And then she was ending her ride as dramatically as she had begun it. Korbel floated up the centerline in a collected trot perfectly in time with the beat of the music, closing with a dead-square halt that even had the judges smiling.

Lynn wore an ear-to-ear grin as she and Korbel left the arena at a relaxed walk. She looked at Chip and Kevin expectantly. "Well?" she asked as she slid down into Chip’s arms.

"Two thumbs up," Kevin said, taking her hand in both of his.

"Nobody could have done better," Chip told her.

Lynn took off her derby and smoothed her hair back. "You really think so?"

Both men laughed. "Yes," Chip assured her. "You saw those other rides. There was no comparison."

"Let’s hope the judges think so," Lynn said, looking towards the judges’ stand.

"We’ll know soon enough," Kevin said. "The runner’s taking the scores to the announcer."

Chip watched Lynn’s face as the scores were announced. Her green eyes were wide and disbelieving as, one by one, four unfamiliar names were announced. And when the announcer said, "And in first place, and overall Fourth Level champion, Lynn Murtagh Morton on Korbel," he picked her up and kissed her soundly. The boisterous whoops and cheers from friends and family in the bleachers echoed as he put her back on her feet.

Kevin grabbed Lynn and hugged her. "I said you could do it! Didn’t I tell ya?"

"We did it!" Lynn disengaged herself from Kevin’s embrace and turned to give Korbel a hearty hug. "Rog, you did it!"

"You sure did," Chip said. "Now get in there and accept your trophy."

"Yeah, right," Lynn said. Chip gave her a leg up and she rode into the arena in a beautifully collected trot, well ahead of the other four competitors.

Chip was barely able to contain his pride as he watched Lynn accept her trophy and championship rosette from the show committee. The small sterling silver bowl wasn’t going to join those already at San Sarita, he decided. This one was going home with them—it would be the beginning of an entirely new collection. Their collection.

Lynn was grinning widely as she handed the bowl down to Kevin. But she had eyes only for Chip as she dismounted and went into his arms once more.

"Happy?" he asked her softly.

"Something like that," she asked, tilting her head up and looking at him with shining green eyes. "You know what?"

"What?" he asked, returning her grin.

"I couldn’t have done it without you."

"Shall we go celebrate?" he asked.

"What do you have in mind?" Lynn asked, trying to stifle a smile.

All Chip did was smile back at her.


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