Authors: Kim Ablon Whitney
“What about coming to Florida to visit me?” I spoke the words before I’d had a chance to really think about them, to think about how insane what I was proposing was. Mom had a hard time going to the grocery store. She wasn’t going to be getting on a plane.
“I would love to see a purple gallinule,” she said.
I had expected her to say no. To come up with the usual excuses. “So come. You could see the horse show, meet Chris, watch Logan… and see birds. Tons of birds, I’m sure.”
Mom smiled. “Maybe I will.”
I felt a flutter of hopefulness. Of excitement. Would she actually come to visit? Maybe her desire to see me, or even to see birds, would outweigh her anxiety.
She clicked over to her blog, Feathered Friends, to look at the comments other bird-crazy people had left her. “Oh, look what BirdLover89 said…”
I stood behind her and watched her for a few moments. She leaned close to the computer, chuckling at some comment by another bird-friend. Did these other bird people leave their homes? Did they have lives?
I knew that Mom would never come to Florida. She couldn’t handle the airport, the flight, even if she would get to see spectacular birds. I felt sad for having thought she would ever be able to come—and stupid too. Wasn’t I old enough to know that things didn’t change just because you wanted them to?
The grayness was gone even before the plane landed. Out the small oval plane window were a blue sky and plump white clouds. Actual blue—pretty, charming, hopeful blue. No more blocks of sky the color of smog. And there were rays of sun! As we started our descent some people pulled on their sunglasses. I was sitting near the wing and the sun was glinting off the metal. Then, as we came closer to landing, I saw green. Grass, trees. No monotonous layer of dirty snow. The first palm trees I saw were along the runway as we touched down.
“Welcome to the North Pole,” the steward cracked over the PA, fulfilling that newly-found need for airlines to live up to their zany commercials and also offer in-flight comic relief.
Everyone chuckled. This was far from the North Pole.
Linda had asked whether she should pick me up at the airport but I told her Chris would. I came down the escalator to the few obligatory men in suits holding placards with the names of the people they were waiting for. I guess a part of me that had seen one too many romantic comedies hoped that Chris might be waiting for me with a sign that said
I LOVE YOU HANNAH!
But that was pretty silly. In fact, Chris texted me and said he was in his car waiting outside. I wasn’t even worthy of parking, which I guess was legit.
I got my huge bag from the carousel and headed out. I wouldn’t exactly say a rush of hot air hit me but the air was temperate. I found Chris right away. He hopped out to help me with my bag and we kissed. I had arrived.
The first part of the drive was four-lane highways bordered by scrub grass. Nothing scenic. But after fifteen minutes, the roads got smaller, turning to two lanes and then one. The grass on the side of the roads became greener and trimmed. We began passing one development of condos after another. Each had a prominent sign that fronted the road and each seemed to have a nature-themed name: The Shores, Treetops, Meadowland Cove, Greenview Shores, Emerald Forest.
“Is this where all the horse show people stay?” I asked Chris.
“All the horse show people who don’t own their own beautiful farm,” he said. “These are actually kind of the down-scale condos. If you really have money you either have your own farm complete with gorgeous house, or you live in Palm Beach Polo.”
I nodded as I stared out the window. Wellington was all new to me. I was trying to get a handle on it, to get my bearings, but I had the feeling it would take a while. “Where do you live?”
Chris pointed as we drove past another development. “In there. I’ll take you later.”
He showed me Palm Beach Polo with its prominent sign and gatehouse. We continued down the road, called South Shore, and came to a stoplight. We turned right onto a road called Pierson. Now things were starting to look distinctly horsey. For one thing, alongside the sidewalk was a bridle path and I could see from the hoof prints in the sand it had been recently ridden on. Alongside the road on the right were paddocks, complete with horses turned out. I could see barns on the other side of the paddocks and the occasional ring or jumping field.
“Wow,” I said.
“Just wait.” Chris pointed to the left. “That’s the main entrance to the horse show.”
I could see a security gate but not too much more beyond it.
“And this,” Chris added, taking a left, and pulling up to another gate, “is Grand Prix Village.”
“Is this where all the grand prix horses live?”
Chris chuckled. I guess my naiveté was kind of cute to him. Thank goodness. To most people I’d just seem like a clueless idiot. He punched a code into the keypad and the gate swung open. “No, it’s just called that. It’s the closest set of farms to the horse show so it’s basically the most exclusive and expensive. Just look around.”
What I saw was farm after gorgeous farm. Chris told me that most of the elite trainers and riders owned their own stables within hacking distance to the show grounds. If a rider couldn’t afford his own second barn in Wellington, he rented stalls at one, which is what Chris did. Trainers and riders usually kept a set of stalls on the show grounds as well for when they were competing, but otherwise they could train their horses at their home base, where they had all the necessary amenities like beautiful wash stalls, treadmills, hot-walkers, and turnout—not to mention rings and even grand prix fields full of jumps to practice over. There would be no fighting over jumps in the schooling ring; no watchful eyes of USEF stewards.
Each farm had its own fence, often beautifully sculpted hedges surrounding it, and its own stately gate. Some of the gates were made out of rich cherry-colored wood, others were a mix of wood and black wrought-iron. Still more had metal shaped intricate patterns.
Chris turned into a driveway, pulling up to a giant castle-like gate with two bronze lion faces on each side. The corresponding bronze sign read
MORADA BAY FARM.
“Do you know the code?”
I scrolled through my emails to find the four-digit code Linda had given me. Chris typed it in and the giant gate swung open.
“Oh my God,” I breathed as we pulled into one of the most amazing barns I’d ever seen. Every blade of grass glowed bright green and had been coifed to golf-course perfection. As we got out, I bent down to touch the grass, certain that it was fake.
“It’s real,” Chris said.
There were smaller, sculpted hedges and rows of pink flowers. In front of the barn was a giant hedge horse on its back feet with its front knees up in jumping form.
“Do you want me to go in with you?” Chris asked.
“What do you think?” I said, suddenly slightly nervous. I wanted to make a good first impression on Linda. Did that mean coming in with my grand prix rider boyfriend, or not coming in with him?
“I think I should see you later,” Chris said.
I felt for a split second like he was less my boyfriend and more older trusted advisor. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. But I had the inkling he was right. This was my job. I didn’t need him coming in with me.
He pulled my bag out of the car and kissed me. “Text me later.”
I waved as he pulled out. I took out my ponytail and redid it to buy myself a little time. I was nineteen and about to start my first job. I didn’t feel ready at all.
I rolled my bag further into the barn.
A groom with a blue heeler dog following at his hip walked by leading a gorgeous horse with an impeccably banged tail.
“Hi,” I said, feeling dumb standing there with my bag.
He nodded and smiled.
The barn was a semi-circular shape with stalls on each side, all opening to a courtyard with more manicured grass and cobblestone paths. It was open and airy, the complete opposite of the New England barns I was used to that were built sturdy and nearly claustrophobic to withstand the snow and wind. This barn felt more like a spa for horses. I even thought I detected a slight smell of lavender, mixed with the usual thick smell of manure and fly spray. A pretty fountain bubbled in the middle of the courtyard. The aisles were matted and the stall doors were all that rich cherry color again. Each stall had a V-shaped screen so the horse could hang his head out but wouldn’t scrape an eye on the halters or the hooks they hung neatly on. A wrought-iron stairway led from the courtyard up to what I assumed was where I’d be living.
I looked around, wondering where Linda might be. I should have asked the groom with the dog where she was.
I abandoned my bag and walked down the aisle, looking in at the horses. Their stalls were large and filled with loads of clean shavings. Each stall had a window that looked out the back so the horse could hang his head out either way—into the barn aisle or outside to get some sunshine. At the end of the aisle I came to a few doorways. I peeked inside the first and saw a petite blond sitting at a desk that looked like it belonged in a corner office rather than in a barn office. Sunglasses were propped on her head.
I knocked on the side of the doorframe, which gave off the appealing, deep thwock of knocking on quality wood, and then felt stupid for knocking and just opened the door.
Linda pushed out her chair from the desk and spun—the chair was on wheels—to face me. On the broad desk sat a laptop, a large printer, and a bunch of horse-supply catalogs. A small, furry dog with a bejeweled collar looked up from its dog bed.
“Hi there, you made it!”
Linda’s friendliness put me right at ease.
I will be fine working for her
, I thought to myself. I bent down and patted her dog, Taffy. She showed me around the barn, pointing out different horses of Dakota’s. Soon enough I’d know each one by sight and know nearly every little thing about them—what tack they wore, what supplements they got, how they went in the ring—but right then it all seemed a bit of a blur. Should I have been taking notes? One of the horses had an adorable miniature donkey as a companion. The donkey lived in the stall with him.
“He used to destroy his stall, his blankets, injure himself,” Linda explained.
She strode around the barn with her shoulders back and chin slightly jutted out, the sunglasses propped on her head. “Now he’s happy as a clam.”
I took in everything she said, nodding I was sure too often and too eagerly, and hardly saying anything. I figured it was preferable to talking too much. She showed me the tack room with its bridles and saddles neatly organized on their racks. There was a stack of sparkling white saddle pads, a stack of half pads, and a rack of fleece girths. Everything was in perfect order. The horse boots, ear plugs, extra bits and other miscellaneous tack were stowed in floor to ceiling dark wood cabinets, like those you’d see in someone’s mansion. She showed me the laundry room, complete with four industrial washers and dryers. She smiled as she said, “I’m a clean freak.”
Even the barn bathroom was spotless and fancy, with a marble countertop, tile floor, and monogrammed hand towels. The barn opened onto a good-sized ring with colorful jumps surrounded again by gorgeous hedges. Adjacent to the long sides of the ring were paddocks. At the end of one of the barn aisles was a patio area with wicker lounge furniture, a bar, and a grill.
Linda asked me where my stuff was and I told her I’d left my bag in the front of the barn. She said she’d ask Fernando to bring it over to the house. I assumed Fernando was the groom with the blue heeler.
“I’m not staying above the barn?” I asked.
“That’s the grooms’ apartments. You’re in the main house… since you’ll be taking care of Dakota when her parents aren’t here.”
“Right,” I said. “Where do you live?” I was surprised Linda didn’t live in the house too. Or somewhere nearby.
“Over in Bedford Mews. I own a condo there. Wanna see the house?”
“Great,” I said.
If the barn had impressed me, I was blown away by the house. It wasn’t so much the size, although it was plenty spacious, but it was how it was decorated. Gorgeous, bright colored wallpaper and tile in hues like pink, clementine, and turquoise. Funky sconces and light fixtures that looked like birdcages. Transparent kitchen stools and abstract art on the walls.
My bedroom was good-sized—especially compared to my dorm room. It had white furniture with a little desk in one corner and a queen bed with an ornate headboard and a lime colored bed skirt and matching accent pillows that just screamed Lily Pulitzer.
“Nice, huh?” Linda said.
It was all very nice. Incredibly nice. And this was just a home that the Pearces spent some time in during the winter months. I couldn’t imagine what their real home was like. Linda showed me the sliding glass doors that opened to the oval-shaped pool. As we walked back through the house, I was a little worried about what essentially amounted to me living with the Pearce Family. I had just assumed I’d have my own separate space. I hoped I’d like the Pearces. I didn’t really mind living with a kid but living with Dr. and Dr. Pearce might be kind of odd. I shook off the thought—it would work out. And plus, I could spend most nights they were here with Chris if I wanted to. I glanced around the kitchen with its gleaming gourmet appliances one more time—this was not a house to bemoan having to live in.