As always, thanks to the lovely folks who left feedback and those of y’all who are reading along:
Carolyn: Yeah. The “paperwork” excuse really didn’t work, huh? Did Michael mess it up? What about Maria, and what she said and did to further aggravate the situation? I think both are to blame, and they are absolutely a mess.
Eve: You’re too funny! Yeah, M&M are good at going from nothing to ninety in the span of no time… and gearing down just as fast. Glad you enjoyed the part!
Bella: So happy to hear you’re loving this story. Michael and Maria do just keep having miscommunication after miscommunication that leads to heartache on both sides, huh? Michael has a way with words when he’s hurt, and he can turn them into weapons easily. That’s exactly what he did in this last part, and I warn you, he’ll use them in future parts, too, because that’s how he is, though he does it without thinking and isn’t normally such a jerk when his head is on straight. As far as them getting back together… well, we’ll see about that.
Special thanks to Maria, for editing this part so long ago, and to Angel for picking up the slack on my newer parts, which I’ll be sharing here in no time!
I hope y’all enjoy this part!
A YEAR LATER.
Maria woke up extra early the day Hope's training was scheduled to begin. It was a gray March morning, and Maria hopped out of bed without a problem, thrilled that Hope’s time had finally come. In celebration of this major life event, she planned to groom the filly to perfection before she went out onto the track for the first time… even if it was just to be walked around in circles after being tacked up.
As Maria pulled on her jeans and a long-sleeved button down flannel shirt, she thought about how life had changed since Hope’s birth. She searched the apartment for her heavy coat, spotting it strewn on a barstool by her kitchen, before turning her thoughts back to what had happened in the last year.
She and Michael had effectively avoided direct interaction one another since their final fight in the breeding barn a year earlier. Luckily, neither worked with the other exclusively, and they could easily get away with the silence when others were around. However, when the need arose, they were cordial to each other, and Maria viewed this as a positive.
Maria understood her need to move on. While her head agreed with that and she had forged strong relationships with others, her heart couldn’t make that final cut. But now, the pain had dimmed to a dull ache that only tugged at her when she was at her lowest. And she was sure he felt the same. From what she had observed, he had been on a several dates, but this time, he didn’t seem to flaunt these girls in front of her, except for his latest squeeze, if you could call her that. Even with her, he seemed to hold off on any public displays of affection.
Maria still felt badly about what happened, and the more she thought about their second falling out, the more guilty she felt. He had laid his feelings at her feet… and she had believed him for a few moments, but when he made that comment about her not leaving for a month, she had flown off the handle, effectively snuffing out anything that could have ever possibly been. Because of her guilt and embarrassment, she continued along her path of avoiding interacting with Michael. She wasn’t sure what would happen if the two were in a situation where they alone had to work together because she didn’t trust herself around him. This had been proven time and again.
Other than her second falling out with Michael, more things had occurred during the past year.
In the summer, she graduated from college — finally — and went back to working full-time at Daydream Acres, much to her mother’s dismay. Maria and Kyle had continued riding together, and she was feeling more and more confident on top a racehorse by the day. While she still hadn’t had the guts to tell her best friend about her dreams or that she had been practicing, she felt like her time was drawing near.
Not only did Maria work exclusively at Daydream, but she ran the team of stablehands, jockeys, and grooms for Liz, and in recent months, they had added new members to their farm family.
Among them were a petite, curly-haired blonde named Tess who worked double time as a groom and a jockey and had become a fast friend of hers. Tess and Kyle had something going on, Maria was sure of it, but neither would admit anything to her because of her past involvement with Kyle, even though the two had gone their separate ways amicably. Maria and Kyle had dated on and off for a few months, finally realizing they were better off as friends than lovers, and Maria was tempted to say something to Tess about just coming out and dating the other jockey for good because they were so much better together than she and Kyle ever were.
Another new groom was named Courtney. The girl had come to work for Daydream six months ago, and she had been combative toward Maria from the get-go, especially after Liz raised Maria to the head groom and the team leader of all the horse caretakers and riders. From what Maria was able to gather, the lanky blonde was dating Michael — or whatever equated to dating in his book — and she was not hospitable to Maria in the least, even though Maria was technically her boss. However, they kept the other girl because she certainly knew what she was doing around horses, and they were lucky to have her, despite her unfortunate attitude toward Maria.
Two other new workers had joined the ranks at Daydream Acres. Jim Valenti, Kyle’s father, had made the move from Texas to Kentucky and was working as Daydream’s barn manager. He was a kind man, and his skill set, while more geared toward a western ranch, was perfect for the stables. He kept mostly to himself, but when Maria had spent any time with him, she knew he was a good guy, especially after seeing him work with the foals and other horses who were having a hard time.
Alex Whitman, a longtime friend of Liz and Maria’s, came on board to take care of the numbers at the farm. While Alex lived in Lexington, he was spending more and more time at the stables, and Maria would bet her next paycheck on it being because Isabel Evans was spending more time at the farm, too. Isabel wouldn’t give Alex the time of day just yet, but the way that Alex was following the model-esque blonde around, it would be no time before she had to stop and notice him. Liz and Maria had a running bet on this, and Maria was hoping Isabel would finally notice Alex within the next six months to get the maximum payout.
The Evans siblings were spending more time in Kentucky, too. Max and Liz were an item — a serious one, at that — and he and his sister had moved the rest of their stock to Daydream after Liz’s success with Triple Star. Star’s three-year-old season was thrilling, as he won the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, overpowering the Derby winner both times. He also won some handicaps later on in his three-year-old season and even received a bid to run in the Dubai World Cup, but unfortunately had to be retired because of an injury that occurred during a workout. In his first season at stud, he was the stable's most sought-after stallion and was still the pride and joy of Isabel, who Maria was liking more and more each day.
The stables were near full at Daydream these days, especially after Triple Star’s spectacular 3-year-old season. The new horses, most belonging to Max and Isabel, ranged from two year olds to seven year olds. Two of them were Hope's age — yearlings — and would begin their training this morning, too. Definitely Spectacular was a black colt with bloodlines linking him to Spectacular Bid, and the other was Evening Romance, a well-built bay filly. Maria hoped both of these horses did well in their training and their subsequent careers, but she selfishly prayed they would never interfere with her plans for Hope.
As for Hope, she slowly filled out, growing into her awkwardly long gray and black legs. When she was weaned from her mother at the age of six months, she was extremely upset and confused. The Daydream team realized the filly did not cope well with change, so they did everything in their power to create a schedule for the horse. During that time, Maria had spent a significant chunk of her time with the filly, reinforcing their bond, as well as comforting the young horse who missed her mother. And in recent months, Maria had been pouring more of her free time into the horse in the hopes that she would begin to blossom even more in preparation for her training. Since Hope’s first birthday, the yearlings were working on trotting, cantering and galloping on a lunge, and this morning was special because it was the morning that tack — the bridle and saddle — would be introduced.
While a lot had changed, even more had stayed the same at Daydream. Maria was still thrilled to be working with Liz and her favorite horses. She had several friends and co-workers. And even though things weren’t perfect, she was happy.
She shook her head at the thought of the imperfections in her life and slipped on her old riding boots, crossing the room in three steps to pick up a carrot for Hope and an apple for herself before slinking out the front door of her apartment, thrilled that this morning had finally come.
Maria trotted across the stable yard. The morning was quiet in the pre-dawn light, and Maria marveled at how beautiful her workplace was. Without a word, she opened the door of the training stabled and flicked on the overhead lights, being greeted with a few whinnies as she walked down the aisle to the stall of her favorite gray horse. On her way down the aisle, she grabbed a pail of brushes and other grooming supplies out of the tack room and continued on her way in silence.
“Wake up, babe!” she called softly as she entered the stall with all of her grooming supplies. She stroked the filly's gray neck as a 'good morning.’
The filly woke up with her touch and whickered her greeting softly, still dozing in the early morning light.
“Yeah, I know, girl. This is a big day, so I have to make you look great,” Maria said as she groomed the filly. “You’re going to blow those other yearlings out of the water, aren't you?”
Hope neighed eagerly, bobbing her head up and down.
“I know you are, too.”
* * * * *
Shortly after Maria finished grooming Hope, she led the horse out of her stall, barely containing her excitement that the morning was finally here. They made their way out of the barn to the outdoor training oval, finding Liz, Michael, Isabel, Max, and Alex standing together, chatting amongst themselves. There was an older man sitting in the bleachers, that were set along the backside of the training track, but Maria had no clue as to who he was or where he came from.
As she was walking Hope toward the group, so was Courtney with Romance and Jim with Spectacular.
Maria watched as Hope’s breath came out in white puffs, freezing in the air. It was an unusually chilly morning for March, and she was thankful she had remembered her heavy coat, even if it was years old and nowhere near as cute as it once had been. As they made their way to the group of people waiting, all bundled up, she waved a bare palm.
“Good morning!” Liz called to her.
“Hey babe! How are you?” Maria asked as she and Hope strode closer to the crowd.
Liz just smiled and grabbed Max's hand, grinning widely at her boyfriend before turning back to Maria to beam at her. Max winked at Maria, earning a giggle from the groom.
Isabel waved, and Michael somewhat nodded at her. She returned the gesture to both of them before sidling up next to Alex and giving the lanky man a side hug, earning a slobbery kiss on the cheek from him.
Hope snorted impatiently from behind Maria, and Alex turned his attention to the gray horse.
“Oh, Hope,” he stated, stepping closer to the filly and placing a hand on her snout. “I didn’t see you there. How are you doing today, pretty girl?”
The horse responded by whinneying loudly and reaching forward, nuzzling Alex’s pockets for a carrot and poking him with her nose until she was successfully chomping on one.
“You’ve sure spoiled that filly, DeLuca,” Alex laughed as he watched Hope munching happily upon the treat.
“Only the best for our future champion,” Maria retorted, sticking her tongue out at her friend before laughing to herself. “And besides, you should know better than keeping a carrot in your pocket around these parts. That’s just asking for trouble!”
Alex shook his head, opening his mouth to speak, but was cut off by the oldest groom on staff.
“What's on the agenda for today, boss?” Jim asked Liz jokingly once he and Spectacular had reached the small group.
Liz laughed. “We're just going to get them accustomed to the tack. I want to have them led around the track a few times to get used to it, then we’re going to have to keep on doing this until they all are used to the extra weight and the bit in their mouths, so we're getting started early.”
“We’re going to do it all today?” Isabel asked, wide eyed.
Liz nodded her head once. “Assuming the horses take to the tack, we will. If not, we don’t want to rush it because this is the basis of their training. This will be something we work on daily and weekly, building up muscles and trust with the horses. Because, while we’ve still got a while until the New Year, we have our work cut out for us. After the New Year rings in, they'll all be two year olds, and we can begin to figure out the rider situation.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Courtney stated, rubbing the bay filly’s forehead, shooting a smug smirk Maria’s direction. “Right, Romance? You’re gonna be the best, girl.”
And the horse bobbed her head in response, causing the smirk on Courtney’s otherwise pretty face to grow, and she looked at Maria, a gleam in her light blue eyes.
“Not if Hope outshines her,” Maria responded quickly, narrowing her eyes at the taller blonde in annoyance.
“Ready to get started?” Liz asked the crowd, breaking up the potential cat fight between Courtney and Maria, watching their interaction carefully. Something was going to have to be done about the two of them if things didn’t calm down soon, especially since Maria was technically Courtney’s superior.
They all nodded eagerly, attention being drawn to Liz from the confrontation between Maria and Courtney.
“I'll make sure everyone has the right equipment for their horses when we get to the tack room,” Liz started, turning first to the Evans siblings. “Since you guys said you wanted to have an active part in the horses training, you can start learning today. Isabel, you can go get the fetch for Romance and Max, you can get the tack for Spectacular. Alex, if you’ll follow Izzie and help out with Romance’s stuff…”
Then Liz turned to Michael, “Michael, will you get the tack for Hope? You can help Maria get her ready.”
Maria's mouth fell open in shock, but Liz turned to her and shook her head, mouthing ‘No,’ as Michael turned on his heel to collect Hope’s supplies in the training stable.
Maria’s eyes followed Michael’s tall form moving from the training oval toward the tack room in the training barn with Isabel at his heels, chattering away. “You owe me an explanation, Lizzie. You could have at least given me a little warning.”
Liz stepped in front of Maria, blocking her view of Hope’s trainer and crossed her arms, looking kindly upon her friend. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently, Maria, and I want Michael to train Hope.”
“She’s going to be a success,” Liz paused for a second before launching into a prepared speech that she had obviously put some time into before announcing to Maria that she would be working in close quarters with a man she could not stand. “You know that. I know that. Hell, even Michael knows that. And I want him to start off on a good foot again.”
“A good foot again? You make it sounds like he hasn’t trained a horse ever! And besides, the incident with his dad’s and his stock was years ago, Liz,” Maria stated crossly to her friend. “And he hasn’t just been some kind of slouch while working here. He helped train Triple Star! C’mon!”
“But that doesn’t make this situation any different,” Liz started again, holding up her hand when Maria threatened to interrupt. “This fight the two of you are in has lasted entirely too long. You both need to grow up and get over it. You admitted to me you regretted what you said to him and what happened the last time you had a serious conversation. God knows he probably feels the same way. Which you would know that if you spoke to him.”
“Lizzie, I beg to differ,” she begged, not wanting to reveal the final fight she and Michael had shared in the breeding barn, the one that had sealed their fate as foes, not lovers.
“No, Maria. You have no idea. You’ve buried your head in the sand even more since you finally told me what happened. And I get it — I really do. But I want you to drop it, okay? And play nice.”
“It’s not that easy!”
“It would be if the two of you would just talk!” A mulish look crossed Liz’s face, and Maria knew she had lost the battle.
“Fine!” Maria raised her hand in defeat, giving up on the conversation.
“Not to sound harsh, but you’re going to be working with him, so get used to it. I’m the boss here, and I’m telling you that you are going to have to live with this, whether you like it or not,” and with that, Liz turned and marched to the tack room with her boyfriend, who had been waiting for her at the edge of the oval.
Maria’s mouth hung open. How could her best friend push her into this position? Of all the people on the farm, Liz knew what had happened… and she still made this decision anyway, forcing her and Michael to spent a significant amount of time with one another for the first time in nearly four years.
Maria shook her head, attempting to shake clear her thoughts. Clearly, she couldn’t just ignore Michael anymore, as Liz wanted Michael to train Hope. She grumbled at the thought of working alongside the man who had irrevocably shattered her heart all those years ago… and whose heart she had done the same to.
“Girlfriend,” Maria whispered to the horse as she stroked her gray forelock. “Things are not going as expected for your training, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. You’ve got me. I’ve got you. And Michael trained some decent racehorses once upon a time… and even last year. We can make this work.”
And with that, she tied Hope’s lead to the fence in a knot, grunting as she put the finishing touches on it, her fingers cramping up from the cold. At that moment, Michael strolled up, carrying a regular English saddle instead of a racing one and a bridle that Hope would be wearing throughout the initial portion of her training.
“You need some help?” Maria asked, shocking herself and him as she looked up from where she had tied Hope alongside the other young horses, Romance and Spectacular.
Michael just nodded, surprised at Maria’s offer to assist, and she took the bridle out of his left hand, doing her best to not recoil at the touch of his hand against hers as he transferred the bridle into her grip. She made his load lighter without another word, tossing the crown of the equipment over a fencepost. She flexed her fingers intentionally, groaning at their stiffness, and turned back to the horse, ignoring him once again.
When he had set the saddle down on the top row of railing next to the bridle, he turned to take in Maria’s appearance. She had crossed her arms and was looking off in the distance, clearly unhappy with Liz’s arrangement.
“If it means anything to you,” he started, running a hand through his hair as he took a deep breath, unsure how this would come out. “I didn’t ask for this. And she didn’t tell me until earlier this morning.”
“Yeah,” Maria sighed. “Me neither. And just so you know, I’m tolerating you because this is what Liz wants, for whatever reason. We aren’t friends. We haven’t been in a long time, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I have big dreams for Hope, so you’d better step up to the plate.”
There was an awkward pause between the two of them, neither looking at the other as each gathered their thoughts, choosing their words carefully.
“Well, Hope should be awesome if she gets the right training,” she continued, raising an eyebrow in challenge. “So don’t screw it up.”
He ignored her comment and called to the short brunette who was waddling slowly toward the nervous bay filly standing nervously next to Hope, saddle and bridle in her arms. “Where do we start, Liz?”
“Go for the saddle first, then the girth if she takes to it well. Do the bridle last, and then walk her around to get her used to the feeling. Whatever you do, just don't rush it. We don't want her to be scared of being tacked up. This is the first step on all these horses’ roads to their careers.”
Michael and Maria both nodded their agreement, and Maria went to Hope's head, speaking low in her throat to the horse who was shifting her weight nervously, clearly sensing something new was about to happen, as Michael picked up the saddle and its saddle pad from the fence and walked around to the filly’s side.
“Here goes nothing,” Michael stated as he gently placed the fuzzy saddle pad, then settled the saddle on Hope's back after lowering it onto her slowly.
Hope pinned her ears and snorted in disgust at the extra weight on her frame. She wasn’t a big horse, by any means, and she had never felt something like this on her before.
“Talk to her or something,” Michael hissed hurriedly to Maria as Hope swung her head around to try to get a look of the object that had been placed on her.
Maria stroked Hope's neck, letting her hand catch some of the filly's long black mane. “It's going to be okay, girl. If you can deal with the extra weight, you're going to become a champion like we all know that you're going to be. But you have to be used to this before we can make you into one. Okay?”
The filly's ears perked up towards Maria's voice, and she relaxed a little.
Maria heard Michael let out the breath he had been holding. “Good job. Should we try the girth, or should we just let her get used to this for a few moments?”
Maria nodded, contemplating how funny it would be if Hope kicked Michael. She fought back a laugh as she stated, “I've got her head. Just do it slowly so she isn't spooked.”
The spiky-haired man attached the girth to one side of the saddle, and then walked around to Hope's other side. The filly pinned her ears against her head again, knowing something else was amiss, and Maria went to action, talking soothingly to her so that Hope wouldn't try to kick Michael while he tried to fasten the girth. Her feelings about Michael were still confusing, and while she thought it would be amusing to see Michael kicked, she couldn't let that happen to him, so she just kept chatting to the filly.
After a few tries and being stepped on more than a few times, Michael fastened the girth successfully and grinned in triumph.
He patted the filly's rump in a friendly gesture, complimenting her, “Good job, Hope.”
Maria laughed softly.
“Oh, I just never thought you were the type who would congratulate the horse once you got the girth tightened.”
He snorted. “I didn’t think you ever thought of me.”
She rolled her eyes. “I…”
But Liz interrupted before Maria could get her sentence out.
“How far have you two gotten with Hope?”
Michael was the first to snap out of it, breaking his gaze from Maria’s and smirking at Liz. “We've gotten the saddle and girth done, and we're gonna do the bridle soon.”
“Yep,” Maria fumbled collecting the bridle and reins off the hook on the fence. "We were just about to put the bridle on right now."
Liz smiled sympathetically at her friend and mouthed, ‘You are so telling me about this tonight,’ before she turned back to Michael and said, “Romance won't even let us tighten her girth, and they're putting the bridle on Spectacular right now. Hopefully he won't cause them any problems.”
A horse whinnied in the background, and Liz spun around to find Spectacular, the horse she hoped wouldn't cause any problems, bucking and attempting to rid his mouth of the cold, metal bit. “Good luck,” she called to them as she ran off to help Jim rein in the out-of-control colt.
“You ready to try this thing on, Hope?” Maria grinned, holding up the bridle in front of the filly’s long face.
“To tell you the truth, I'm not sure if I'm ready to try it on her,” Michael stated, making his way from Hope's rump over to Maria and sitting down next to her on the rail near Hope's head. He placed his head in his hands and sighed.
Hope, curious about the new scenery, sniffed Michael's hair and nuzzled it, clearly thinking that it was some kind of specialty grass.
“Hey!” Michael's head popped up as soon as he felt the filly attempt to eat his locks. “My hair is not food.”
“She obviously thinks that it is or that it looks like food. Maybe you should take a hint from the horse?” she suggested.
“A hint from the horse?”
“Yeah, to finally cut your hair? Or, you know, try a new style?”
Michael rolled his eyes, rubbing the filly’s forehead. “Nah.”
There was a pause in the stilted conversation before Maria asked, “Are you ready to try the bit and the bridle, Hope?”
The filly, as if she understood, bobbed her head up and down in answer to Maria’s question.
“Let's just hope that she doesn't pull something like Spectacular,” Michael sighed, standing up and looking warily at the big colt who was still up on his hind legs, lashing out with his front legs.
“Here ya go,” Maria grinned cheekily, handing her former friend the bridle, completely ignoring his fears.
“Thanks,” he stated as he held the bit up to Hope's mouth, praying that she would take it without problems. His prayers were not answered as he attempted to open her mouth and slip the bit inside.
The filly, surprised by his sudden action, barred her teeth and flattened her ears, her face transforming from one of an angel's to a very frightening picture.
Michael backed away, taking the bridle with him. “You want to try this, Maria? I don't think she likes me.”
“Michael, if you're going to be her trainer, she's going to have to like you. So I'll stand next to you this time, and you try again. Anyway, you're gonna have to tack her up at the races. I can't do it. I'm just the groom.”
Michael nodded slowly. “True. Maybe it’ll help with you there next to her?”
Maria jumped off the fence and stood at Hope's head, talking and coaxing the filly as Michael pulled the bridle over her head and put the bit into her mouth.
“How does that feel, babe?” Maria pointedly studied the filly as she struggled getting used to the bulky piece of metal in her mouth.
Hope shook her head.
“It's going to be all right, Hope. You know, once you get used to this, you can run like the wind and make a big name out of yourself,” Michael added, brushing the filly's mane out of her face.
“He's right, Hope,” Maria agreed, smiling at the gray horse in front of her. She turned to Michael and stated, “Hold out your hand. See if she does something to it as some sort of movement to convey her emotions.”
He shrugged and held out his hand in front of the young horse. Surprisingly, the filly nuzzled his palm affectionately.
“See, she considers you a friend now,” Maria stated, smirking at the somewhat stunned man next to her. “I think she liked that you talked to her while she was trying to get used to the bit. She’s personable like that.”
Michael nodded, “Okay, Hope. I'm just going to fasten the hooks on the bridle, and then we're going to take you for a nice, long walk around the training oval. Sound like a good idea?”
The filly bobbed her head eagerly while Maria giggled. Her Hope was an intelligent horse, all right. Hopefully she wasn’t wrong in her judgments of her new trainer because Maria was still uneasy about the arrangement.
Michael fastened the bridle and handed Maria the reins. Maria took them, shocked, and led the gray filly onto the track, Michael walking on the other side of Hope's head, each of them muttering encouraging words to the young horse as they slowly made their way around the outer railing of the track.
Maria wasn’t happy about having to work with Michael… but maybe this training thing wouldn’t be too bad after all since they were working toward a common goal and didn’t have to talk about anything but Hope and her training.