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Excerpt

Excerpt

Spirit Riding Free: The Adventure Begins

Introduction

A buckskin stallion stood at the edge of his herd, his head held high, his eyes alert. While the otherhorses filled their bellies with tender spring grass, hisgaze swept the prairie. Leaves rustled in the breeze.Butterflies flitted among stalks of milkweed. A toadleaped onto a rock, to bask in the morning sun.

All appeared peaceful.

The stallion sniffed the air for hidden signs of danger. No damp scent of wolf. No musky scent of bear. And no people, with their strange odors of fire and soap. His ears pricked, listening for anything that might cause trouble, but he was greeted with a gentle trickle from a nearby creek and the lazy whistle of a meadowlark as it called to its mate. The stallion nodded with contentment.

He lowered his head and nibbled the sweet grass, his tail flicking once, twice, to chase away a dragonfly. But on this morning, grazing wasn’t on his mind. He lifted his head again, his legs stiffening. The prairie stretched before him, a vast, wide-open space, and it was calling. He stomped his hoof and snorted. The others understood, for he was young and restless. They stepped aside. His sister gazed at him. Go, her eyes said. Checking once more to make sure the herd was safe, hetook a deep breath. Then he reared up and . . .

. . . charged!

Nothing stood in his way. No mountains, no rivers, no houses or train tracks. With his face in the wind, he was filled with immeasurable joy. He was free.

The morning sun warmed the prairie as the stallion’s galloping hooves beat their wild rhythm.

 

 

1

 

The morning sun streamed through the windows as Lucky’s shoes beat their wild rhythm.

Though Lucky was a natural runner, with long, strong legs, the shoes themselves hadn’t been designed for such activity. Made from stiff black leather, with a half-inch heel, they laced tightly up the shins. That very morning the boots had been polished to a perfect sheen by the family butler. If she kept running, Lucky would surely develop blisters, but she didn’t have far to go.

With no one around to witness, Lucky picked up speed and darted down the hallway of Madame Barrow’s Finishing School for Young Ladies. Running within school walls was strictly prohibited, along with other disrespectful activities like pencil gnawing and gum chewing. But sometimes rules had to be broken, especially when a hot, buttered scone was at stake. So Lucky ran as fast as she could, her long brown braid thumping against her back. Morning tea at Barrow’s was a tradition the headmistress had brought with her from England. The school’s cook could make the pastry so flaky it practically melted in the mouth. And she stuffed each one with a huge dollop of salted butter and sweet blackberry jam. Lucky’s mouth watered just thinking about it. But she was late. So very late. Which wasn’t entirely her fault.

There’d been a . . . distraction.

She’d been looking out the window as she tended to do during morning recitations, her mouth moving automatically, for she knew her multiplication tables by heart. “Twelve times five is sixty. Twelve times six is seventy-two.”

Her legs felt twitchy, as they often did when she was forced to sit for long periods of time. “Twelve times seven is eighty-four. Twelve times eight is ninety-six.”

“Lucky, please stop fiddling,” the teacher said.

“Yes, ma’am.” Lucky sat up straight and tucked her feet behind the chair legs to keep them still.

“Continue, everyone.”

“Twelve times nine is—”Lucky stopped reciting. Something on the other side of the street caught her eye. It was a horse, but not the usual sort that one saw in the city. This horse wasn’t attached to a carriage or wagon. A bright-red blanket lay across his back and feathers hung from his black mane. He was being led down the sidewalk by a man whose long blond hair was topped by a cowboy hat. The fringe on the man’s pants jiggled as he walked. Certainly the city was full of colorful people who came from every corner of the world, but Lucky had never seen a cowboy in person, only in photographs. He walked in a funny, bowlegged way and was handing out pieces of paper to passersby. Lucky leaned closer to the window, but a carriage pulled up and blocked her view.

“Twelve times fourteen is . . .” Lucky tapped her fingers on the desk. She couldn’t get that cowboy and his beautiful horse out of her mind. What were they doing in the city?

“Lucky. Please sit still!”

And so it was that after recitations, instead of heading to tea with the other students, Lucky snuck out the front door to see if the cowboy was still there.

He wasn’t. And by that time, morning tea had already begun.

The headmistress believed that teatime was as crucial to a young lady’s education as literature or history because it taught manners and the important art of conversation. Plus, she insisted that the tea they served at Barrow’s Finishing School was superior because it came all the way from England and had a picture of Queen Victoria on the tin. Lucky wasn’t a huge fan of the stuff, but those scones were to die for.

She bounded up the flight of stairs, lifting her long skirt so she wouldn’t get tangled. She detested the school uniform—a stiff white blouse that buttoned all the way to the chin and a gray wool skirt that always seemed too heavy and too hot. She’d pleaded many times for a change in uniform. She’d brought in newspaper articles to show the headmistress that pants were all the rage in other countries. But her reasonable request fell on deaf ears, for the headmistress was as immobile as a ship in the sand. “My young ladies will not be seen in public in a pair of bloomers!”

Lucky leaped onto the second-floor landing. From the end of the hall came the clinking of china and the quiet conversations of her fellow students. She was almost there. Still gripping her skirt, she dashed out of the stairwell, turned sharply on her heels, and then raced down the hall.

Only to bump into something.

Correction—into someone.

When a scone-craving, restless student collides with a no-nonsense, uppity headmistress, the impact is the stuff of legend. Not only was the wind knocked out of both parties, but they were thrown off-balance. Objects flew into the air—a notebook, a hair comb, a marble pen. When Lucky reached out to break her fall, she grabbed the first thing in front of her, which happened to be the headmistress’s arm. Down they both tumbled, landing on the hallway carpet in a most unladylike way. Lucky knew this was bad—very bad. The headmistress had probably never sat on the ground in her entire life, let alone been knocked down to it!

Madame Barrow pushed a stray lock of hair from her eyes. “Fortuna. Esperanza. Navarro. Prescott!” she said between clenched teeth.

“Gosh, I’m so sorry,” Lucky said, scrambling to her feet. “I didn’t see you.” She offered a hand to the headmistress, pulling her up off the carpet. Then she collected the hair comb, notebook, and pen. “Are you hurt?”

Madame Barrow, headmistress of Barrow’s Finishing School for Young Ladies, did not answer the question. Instead, with expertly manicured fingers, she brushed carpet fuzz off her perfectly pressed gray skirt. She set her hair comb back into place, collected the pen and notebook, and then drew a focused breath, filling her lungs as if she were about to dive underwater. Lucky could have sworn that the intake of oxygen added another inch to the headmistress’s towering frame. Silence followed. Agonizing silence. Then, after a long exhale, the headmistress spoke. “Do you know how long I have been teaching young ladies of society?” she asked in her thick British accent.

“No, Madame Barrow.” Lucky tried not to stare at the headmistress’s right eyelid, which had begun to quiver with rage.

“Fifteen years, Miss Prescott. Fifteen dedicated years.” With a flourish of her hand, she began what Lucky expected would be a long, dedicated lecture. “I was raised and educated in England, Miss Prescott, a country that is the pillar of civility and tradition. The patrons of this institution have placed the tender education of their daughters in my capable hands. In my fifteen years here, I have encountered many different sorts of young ladies. But never, and I repeat, never, has one child exhibited so much . . . spirited energy.”

Spirited energy? Lucky fidgeted. “I know I’m not supposed to run, but—”

The headmistress held up a hand, stopping Lucky mid-excuse. A moment of uncomfortable silence followed. At the other end of the hall, a few students poked their heads out of the tearoom. Eavesdropping. Who could blame them? The scene in the hall was oodles more interesting than the idle chitchat they were forced to engage in while sipping tea. “Must I remind you that running inside is not appropriate behavior for a young lady of society?”

“Yes, Madame Barrow. I mean, no, you don’t need to remind me.” Lucky shuffled in place. Sarah Nickerson’s head appeared next to the others. She smirked. Lucky wanted to holler, “Mind your own business, Sarah!” But she didn’t.

“And yet . . . you ran.” The headmistress raised an eyebrow. Lucky scratched behind her ear. She was starting to feel itchy, as if allergic to the headmistress’s intense and unblinking gaze.

“I’m sorry?”

“Are you asking me if you’re sorry?”

“Um, no, but it’s just that . . .” Lucky’s stomach growled. Loudly. “It’s just that I didn’t want to be late for morning tea.”

“Come with me,” the headmistress said. As she turned around, Sarah and the other eavesdroppers darted back into the tearoom. Lucky sighed. There’d be no scones today.

The headmistress’s office contained lots of lovely things. A collection of china plates graced the walls, lace doilies draped every surface, and a pair of lovebirds twittered in a wicker birdcage.

“How many times have you visited my office this school year?” Madam Barrow asked as she settled into her desk chair.

“I’m not sure.” Lucky had lost count.  Eight times, Miss Prescott. Eight times.” Lucky nodded. The incidents streamed through her mind. She’d slid down the entry banister. She’d climbed a ladder to check out a bird’s nest on a school windowsill. She’d eaten a cricket on a dare. And there was all the running. “I’m beginning to think that I’m sharing my office with you.”

That was a funny thought. Lucky giggled, then tried to take it back but made a snorting sound instead. “Sorry.” It was a well-known fact that Madam Barrow did not possess a sense of humor.

The headmistress tapped her fingers on her desk. She seemed more upset than usual, sitting as if a plank were tied to her back. Lucky hadn’t been invited to sit, so she stood just inside the doorway, doing her best not to fidget. “This is a finishing school, Miss Prescott. Do you know what that means?”

Of course she did. She’d heard the motto hundreds of times. “Preparing Young Ladies for Society.”

“Correct. Young ladies, such as you, enter this school as unformed little lumps of clay. Under my guidance and the tutelage of your teachers, you are shaped—formed—into finished works of art.” She smiled, but there was no warmth in the expression.

Lucky didn’t like to think of herself as a lump of clay—or a lump of anything. And she was not quite sure why she had to be turned into a work of art. Works of art were stuck in museums, behind glass or on pedestals. Works of art stayed in one place. That was much worse than being stuck in recitations.

The headmistress opened her desk drawer and took out a piece of writing paper. Then, using her marble pen, she began to write. She paused a moment, glanced up. “You’ve put me in a difficult position. Are you aware of this?”

“I didn’t mean to.” Lucky felt a tingle on her ankle, the beginning of a blister. Those shoes were really the worst. Why did every part of her uniform have to be so stiff? She shifted her weight, trying to find relief. “Are you listening to me?” the headmistress asked. “Yes.” Lucky stopped moving. “I won’t run anymore. Really, I won’t. I mean, not inside. Unless there’s a fire. I have to run if there’s a fire. Or an earthquake.”

The headmistress sighed. “Miss Prescott, I want all my students to succeed, but I’m beginning to question your chances.”

That sounded very serious. Lucky didn’t set out to break the rules or to test the headmistress’s patience. It just happened. “I know. I’m really sorry. Truly I am. But I saw this cowboy outside and I wanted to . . .” Leaving school without a parent or guardian was strictly prohibited, and by admitting this, she’d just made things worse. The headmistress turned red, as if she’d painted rouge over her entire face. “I find I am near my wits’ end. How can I be expected to put up with such continued willfulness?”

Willfulness? Lucky wondered. Was it willful to want to see a real, live cowboy up close? Was it willful to want to get somewhere quickly? Was it willful to want a scone? If so, then why was being willful such a bad thing? The problem, in Lucky’s opinion, was that there were too many rules and way too much sitting. She couldn’t help that her legs got twitchy.

The headmistress began writing again.

“I didn’t mean to bump into you. I’m sorry, I really am.” Lucky leaned forward. “What are you writing?”

The headmistress wrote a few more lines, then signed her name with a flourish. After folding the paper, she applied a blob of wax and pressed the school’s seal into it. “The question you must ask yourself, Fortuna, is What am I made of?” She held out the letter. “Please deliver this to your father after school. You are dismissed.”

Lucky reluctantly took the letter and was about to head out the door when the headmistress cleared her throat. Oh, that’s right, Lucky thought. She turned back around and said, “Thank you, Ma’am.” The headmistress nodded. Then Lucky made her escape.

On previous occasions, upon leaving the headmistress’s office, Lucky had felt a wave of relief. But never before had the headmistress said she was at her wits’ end. And never before had she written a letter with a secret message to Lucky’s father. There could be nothing good in that letter.

Fortuna Esperanza Navarro Prescott fought the urge to run as she tucked what she believed to be her doom into her pocket.

 

 

2

 

Lucky stood in the hallway as the other students streamed out of the tearoom. Most greeted her withsympathetic smiles, for Lucky was well liked at school.Only Sarah Nickerson stopped to gloat. “In troubleagain? When are you going to realize that you don’tbelong here?” Sarah asked. But she didn’t wait for ananswer. Lucky wouldn’t have bothered anyway. It wasno use trying to talk to someone like Sarah, who’d beentaught by her parents that because one side of Lucky’sfamily didn’t “come from money,” Lucky wasn’t Sarah’ssocial equal.

As the hallway cleared, the last student to emerge from the tearoom was Emma Popham. Emma had a sneaky look on her face. She glanced around, then slipped a scone into Lucky’s hand. “Thanks,” Lucky whispered, then ate the scone in two bites. She and Emma always looked out for each other.

After wiping crumbs off her lips, Lucky grabbed the handles of Emma’s rolling chair, a fancy chair with wheels that allowed Emma to move about. As a little girl, Emma had suffered a sickness that left her legs skinny and weak. She could stand for short periods, but she couldn’t walk more than a few steps.

“So I heard,” Emma said as Lucky wheeled her down the hallway, “you were in the headmistress’s office.”

“I’m setting a school record.”

Emma placed her hands over a pair of books that lay in her lap. “Did Madame Barrow remind you that”— she conjured a British accent for the rest of the sentence—“you’re a little lump of clay that needs to be molded into a work of art?”

“Actually, she told me that you’re the lump.”

“No, you are.”

“No, you are.” They both laughed.

One of the nice things about going to the most prestigious school in the city was that the school came complete with all the latest technologies, including an elevator. Lucky opened the elevator gate, then the door, and pushed Emma into the small chamber before stepping inside behind her. She turned the lever. After a loud clanking sound and a quick jarring motion, the elevator moved slowly upward.

Lucky leaned against the wall. “Madame Barrow wrote a letter to my dad.”

“What does it say?”

“I don’t know. But I’m guessing it’s not good. Something about me beingwillful and having too much spirited energy.”

“Well, that’s better than having a stick up your behind like Sarah,” Emma said. “Besides, your dad won’t get mad. He never gets mad at you. He adores you.” Emma was trying to make Lucky feel better, but Lucky’s stomach tightened with worry. She didn’t want to disappoint her father. “Why were you late, anyway?”

“I saw a cowboy and a horse with feathers in his mane!”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. Walking down the street. The cowboy was passing out pieces of paper to people and I wanted to see what it was all about.”

“Did you get one?”

“No.” Though she still wanted answers about the cowboy and his horse, she couldn’t shake her worry about the letter. “What if Madame Barrow wants to kick me out of the school?”

“Never,” Emma said with a wave of her hand. “She wouldn’t do that.”

“But what if the letter’s really bad and Dad decides I need some kind of punishment?”

Emma shrugged. “It’s really not a big deal. If he does punish you, then he’ll do what my parents always do. He’ll make you stay home on weekends and not go to any—” She gasped. “Oh no. You don’t think he’ll make you miss my party?”

The elevator had reached the third floor, but Lucky didn’t open the door right away. Emma’s question hung in the air over both their heads, like a storm cloud.

Emma’s birthday party was going to be the most glorious party ever. At least that’s how Lucky imagined it. The Pophams lived in a stone mansion on Church Street, with a private stable for their carriage horses. No expense would be spared for the event. Emma’s perfumed invitations had been mailed weeks ago. “I’m going to your party,” Lucky said as she opened the elevator door. “I’ll do chores for the rest of my life if I have to. I’ll help with the shopping and the cooking. Nothing’s going to stop me.” She grabbed the handles and wheeled Emma out of the elevator.

“And I’ll help you with those chores,” Emma said. “Because there’s no way I’m turning thirteen without my best friend.”

Library was next on the schedule. According to Madame Barrow, young ladies should always take time to properly digest a meal, so after enjoying tea and scones, they faced another long bout of sitting. But Lucky didn’t mind, because she loved reading. Adored it, in fact. For a young lady of society, reading was the only socially approved type of exploration.

The school library took up most of the third floor. Bookshelves lined the walls, and embroidered cushions decorated the velvet chairs. A fire usually crackled in the winter, but on this spring day the window was open, permitting a nice breeze. Lucky wheeled Emma to their favorite corner, by a window that overlooked the park. Emma held up the books she’d been cradling on her lap. “Dad got these for us. They’re both by Jules Verne. I can’t wait to start this one. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” She and Lucky were drawn to the same kind of stories—grand adventures in exotic locations, brimming with danger. This was one of the many reasons why they were best friends.

“Oh, I’ve read that one,” Lucky said. “Everyone thinks there’s this huge sea monster, and they send out these guys to kill it, but the sea monster turns out to be a—”

“Don’t tell me the whole story!” Emma cried.

“Oops.” Lucky smiled. “Trust me, you’re gonna love it.” She grabbed the other book. “Journey to the Center of the Earth. This looks great.”

“You can keep it.”

“Thanks.”

The clock struck eleven. The other students found seats, and everyone took out their books and began to read. Along with the clock’s ticking and pages rustling, young children squealed in the park, but none of those sounds distracted Lucky. The only time she didn’t get squirmy was when her nose was stuck in a book. How does one get to the center of the earth? she wondered.

Was there a secret tunnel? She’d never been outside the city, except to go to her grandfather’s country house upstate. Lucky opened to the first page, ready for another story to take her someplace amazing.

A shadow fell across the page. Mrs. Beachwood, a portly woman with a jiggly chin and a warm smile, had wandered over. “I see you two are sticking with the adventure genre.”

“Yes,” Emma said.

Was that a twinkle in Mrs. Beachwood’s eye?

“Wouldn’t you prefer a gentler story? A story about taking care of your home?” She held up a book titled The Joys of Domestic Duties. Emma and Lucky cringed. “Or perhaps this one?” The second choice was Manners and Etiquette of a Young Lady. Because it had been written by the headmistress, it had been read by most of the students. Lucky groaned to herself. The corners of Mrs. Beachwood’s eyes crinkled in amusement. “I see how it is. You’d rather read about dangerous places, courageous heroes, and evil villains than about how to tell a salad fork from a dessert fork.”

“Yes!” they both said, forgetting the quiet rule.

Mrs. Beachwood cupped a hand around the side of her mouth and whispered, “Well, I wholly approve.” Then she began to shelve books.

Lucky curled up in her chair and opened to the first chapter. She always felt a rush of excitement when she began a new book. Where was she going? What would she see? Would this story give her nightmares or would it make her laugh? She felt restless again, but it wasn’t her legs. The feeling came from a deeper place. Lucky didn’t fully understand yet, but what she felt at that moment was longing. There are people who never have this feeling, people who are content to stay put. But Lucky longed to go somewhere. Maybe not to the center of the earth, maybe not twenty thousand leagues under the sea, but somewhere.

Somewhere beyond her tidy, inside life.

DreamWorks Spirit Riding Free © 2017 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved

Spirit Riding Free: The Adventure Begins
(Spirit Riding Free #1)
by by Suzanne Selfors