Two Hearts Healing (Merindah Park, #3)
Australian author Renee Dahlia takes us back to Merindah Park for this rural romance about letting go of the past and the healing power of horses.
Home. It’s been a long journey to recovery after the horse racing accident that nearly killed me, and now I’m ready to embrace life. Yes, I have a head injury, but that’s not going to stop me creating a survival list of all the things I was too polite to do before. Number one on the list is to ride again. Also on the list: kiss Lee Edwards, my former boss and hot-as-hell neighbour. Not that I’m going to write that one down where anyone might see it.
The last six months have been hell. Not only did one of my horses nearly kill my stable jockey, Serena, but the accident wrecked my friendship with her brother and reminded me that I’m a failure. Just like my father said I’d be. I moved to Australia, the other side of the world, to get away from his negative voice and create a new life as a horse trainer. And now Serena is on my doorstep, demanding to learn to ride again. I can’t do it. I won’t be responsible for hurting her again. So why is it so hard to say no?
Serena zipped her suitcase closed slowly, pressing down on the top to squeeze everything inside. Five long months after the horse racing accident which nearly killed her, she was going home. Home to Merindah Park, the farm she’d grown up on. Away from this rehabilitation centre where she’d been surrounded by old people marching slowly to their deaths. No, that wasn’t fair, some of the older ladies had been really supportive as they’d recovered from broken hips and other injuries of the elderly. She bit back a sigh. It wasn’t fair to have a brain injury at twenty-five either. She was grateful for the Australian medical system, because as much as it sucked to have a long-term injury, at least her family hadn’t had any financial stress in the situation to complicate things. Yah for modern medicine, and yah for Medicare. She’d be dead without one and broke without the other. As it was, she faced a long recovery time without any prospect of income. If she didn’t have her family to support her, she’d be solely reliant on government assistance and her pathetic workplace injury insurance payments. Her twin sister hovered in the room, her keys clinking loud in her hands. Rachel was the wild one, the one most likely to be injured by a horse, by anything. Serena hated this unfairness that dogged her—it wasn’t Rachel’s fault, or anyone’s fault. Just an accident caused by broken equipment. Unpredictable. Random.
‘Can you stop that?’ Serena hated the way small noises irritated her now. She couldn’t even play her favourite online games anymore, all the flickering lights, and beeps made her anxiety ratchet upwards, and turning the sound off only helped a little bit. She kept her phone permanently on mute now. Rachel’s fidgeting showed how excited her twin sister was to be driving her home. Serena wanted to be home too, more than ready for the next phase in her life. Her recovery still had a long way to go with several doctors warning her it would be a lifelong process and she might never regain all the functions she had before the accident. She hoped that didn’t mean she’d never be able to ride again. If there was one thing she wanted, it was a life with horses. She couldn’t imagine any other life. All she’d ever wanted to be was a jockey, and this had to be a cruel irony, that a racing accident took away the only career she’d ever wanted.
‘Oh, sorry. Is the noise irritating?’ Rachel slipped the keys into her pocket.
Serena sighed, trying hard not to yell, ‘Yes. Didn’t one of my ’ists tell you?’ Serena eased out a long breath as her twin took the time to ensure none of the keys would knock against each other as she tucked them away. Rachel was on her side, and Serena needed to remind herself she’d always wanted to have her twin close beside her. Who knew it would be stifling? Or was that just this room, this facility? She missed the wide grassy paddocks, watching young horses frolic together, and the way a horse’s breath misted out like dragon smoke in the early mornings as they worked in pairs around the training track. The rhythm of a horse under her, so much strength and power, and the rush when a horse accelerated. Soon she’d be home. Soon she’d ride again.
‘’ists?’ Rachel’s question made her blink. What were they talking about? Oh, yeah, her ’ists.
‘Neurologist, physiotherapist, speech pathologist, psychologist, social therapist, all the ’ists who have been helping me.’
Rachel grinned, ‘That’s funny. Hey, before we go, I have a present for you.’
‘The only present I need is to see the farm again. And breathe in some horses.’
‘I promise you’ll like this one. It’s the footage of me on the day of your accident.’
Serena squinted at her twin, ‘What?’ Her pulse quickened. How was that a present? It sounded like the shittiest thing someone could give her.
Rachel cleared her throat. ‘I know you don’t remember the accident.’
‘I’ve watched it a few times.’ Serena hated the defensive tone in her voice. Her therapists told her she’d never remember the accident or the month afterwards, and she thought she was okay with that. When her psychologist mentioned she might want to watch the footage of her accident, she’d refused, but slowly curiosity had won. The first time she’d seen it, it had been a weird almost out-of-body experience, as though the crash was happening to someone else. Someone distant from her.
‘I remember the moment the bit broke, and I thought “I always knew a horse would kill me, I just didn’t think it would be today”,’ she said, trying to force a smile. It had taken months for that memory to return, and when it did, the connection between the footage and herself also returned, gifting her with a sense of if that couldn’t kill me, nothing will. She had survived the worst that life as a jockey could throw at her.
‘I’m fucking glad the crash didn’t kill you, Se.’ Rachel held out her hands towards her, and Serena rested her hands in Rachel’s outstretched palms.
‘So am I.’ Serena shut her eyes, letting Rachel keep her balance for her momentarily. She opened them slowly, thankfully not experiencing any of the dizziness which had plagued her for so long during rehab.
‘What’s my present, Rachel?’ Serena needed to break the emotional weight between them. For the entirety of their childhood, Serena had been the twin who held them together, but ever since her accident, Rachel had taken up the task of being the one who supported her.
‘I had the people at racing telly make this up for me. It’s the footage of me riding down to the start at the moment of your accident.’ Rachel pulled her hands free and grabbed her phone from the side table. She clicked on a video file and turned the phone, so Serena could see the screen.
‘It was Melbourne Cup Day and your race was scheduled about ten minutes before mine at Flemington. I asked the tech people to do a version with a split screen too, so you can see the timing better, but this file is just me because I wasn’t sure about showing you your accident. Miss Spent and I are trotting down to the start for the fourth race on the card.’
Serena watched the neat bay filly trotting with perfectly even strides down the back straight with Rachel on board. Suddenly, Rachel asked the horse to stop and she leaped off.
‘She looks great, why did you pull her up?’ Serena asked.
‘I had an overwhelming feeling that something was wrong. I pulled her up immediately and jumped off.’
‘Yeah, look at you, checking her legs.’
‘I couldn’t find anything wrong, so I swung back on, and walked slowly to the starting gates.’
‘She didn’t like that. Look at her flicking her head impatiently.’
Rachel shook her head. ‘I was so convinced something was wrong. I asked the vet to check her, and she couldn’t find anything either. One of the barrier guys told me later that they’d been listening to your race on the radio. They knew and decided not to tell me.’ The video stopped playing and Rachel kept talking, her voice breaking a little, ‘It didn’t matter that Miss Spent passed the vet check, I couldn’t shake the sense that something was wrong, and as we galloped into the home stretch, I didn’t push her out at all. Just in case. She finished fifth and I was hauled in front of the stewards to explain why I didn’t ride her out. I explained that something felt wrong, and that’s when they told me about your accident.’
‘I told you we always had a weird twin connection. You never did believe me.’ Serena forced herself to smile. Her breath sped up, amazed at the way Rachel had known from the moment of the crash, and glad she hadn’t been told until now. Before today she wouldn’t have been ready for that knowledge. Today, it felt exactly right. She was heading home to her family with her sister who finally understood the deep connection she’d always had with her. Heat blossomed behind her eyes.
‘I believe it now. Come on, let’s get you in the car and you can sleep all the way home.’
‘Home sounds good.’ Serena blinked away the tears welling in her eyes as she tried to imagine her twin’s confusion on that day. And the horror of riding in the Melbourne Cup not knowing if she’d survive. Rachel had done a fantastic job to ride Tsuyoi Red into fourth place under all that pressure.
‘The stewards let me have my phone, under their supervision that day, so I could get updates from the hospital. Allira let me know you’d arrived by chopper and were breathing, and the rest of the family rushed to your side, leaving me and Shannon with Tsuyoi Red. We came straight after the Cup.’
‘Horses first.’ It wasn’t a question, and she meant it with absolutely no sarcasm. It was simply a statement which summed up her whole life. Their entire family always put horses before everything else—it was simply what racing people did.
Rachel shook her head. ‘I didn’t want to ride. I would’ve given the ride to someone else, and Shannon was going to scratch Tsuyoi Red, but John said we should carry on. For you.’
‘To ride in the Cup is a dream. John was right. You did the right thing.’ Serena would never have forgiven herself if her family had scratched Tsuyoi Red that day. To get a horse into the Cup was one of the toughest and most sought-after things in racing. Of the tens of thousands of racehorses in Australia, only twenty-four were good enough to run in the Cup. Serena was glad they’d carried on, and to run fourth had been the best news to wake up to —almost a fairytale ending. If it had been Rachel who was hurt, she would’ve ridden too. Wouldn’t she? Yeah, probably. Serena swallowed, staring down the hallway of the rehab centre. Three hours in a car before she was home. Exhausting, and she’d probably need to sleep for a couple of days once she got back to the farm. Even after five months, concentrating on anything for more than half an hour made her so tired and emotional. Her ’ists keep saying how fast she was progressing, and how proud they were of her improvement. She just wished she could feel the improvement, rather than dwell on all the things she couldn’t do anymore, like drive a car. Being independent was one of those things you didn’t realise you had until it was gone, and now she would be back home getting driven to appointments by Mama as if she were back in primary school. Rachel slipped her phone into her back pocket and grabbed Serena’s suitcases.
‘I’ll take these.’
Serena murmured her thanks and looked around her room one last time. Five months in this little sterile room with only her phone and a television, and a million specialists to spend time with, learning how to do all the activities of daily living. She hated how her life had become contained in this tiny room, reduced to acronyms like ADL, PTA, TBI. Her life compressed, slowly whittled down for every month she’d been there. She couldn’t remember the first month, being in a coma for a week, then experiencing post-traumatic amnesia. Once she’d passed a few basic tests, she’d been allowed visitors outside her family and a steady stream of old friends had dropped by in those first few months. But they’d stopped coming lately. She knew she hadn’t been the greatest friend to them, having slept away most of the five months, every rehab session exhausting her, even the smallest tasks were tiring, especially at the beginning when she’d had to relearn how to balance enough to walk, or to dress herself. Rachel and her partner Jacob had been amazing, visiting every day, and slowly helping her remember all the important things. The rest of the family had come as often as they could get away from the farm, and they’d been understanding when she’d forget basic stuff, like who they were, in those first few months. She’d made excuses for her friends at first—she didn’t want to be in rehab, and she wasn’t much fun when they did visit—but slowly she’d realised that she’d been the giver in those relationships, and as soon as she couldn’t give, they’d stopped taking. Of all the people in her life who had mattered to her, only one hadn’t visited in the whole five months. Lee Edwards—the trainer of Tam’s Reward, the horse she’d been riding during her accident. She didn’t blame him for the faulty bridle which caused the accident. It happened. Equipment broke. It was no one’s fault. Once she got settled at home, she’d go and visit him. She wanted to know if Tam’s Reward was okay—he hadn’t turned up at the races again, and none of her family mentioned the horse. She’d watched the footage many times, and every time Tam’s Reward had stumbled to his feet after rolling on top of her, galloping behind the rest of the field, the broken bridle hanging dangerously loose around his neck. He looked fine in the footage, but you could never tell. Apparently, she’d thrashed about in the helicopter asking about Tammy. She shrugged, unable to remember anything. She needed to visit Lee and find out. Lee—her biggest regret—the enigmatic blond horse trainer who’d arrived from England a couple of years ago and set up at the old Patterson property. Shannon had introduced them, and she’d been so overwhelmed by his tall, lean, handsomeness and kind mannerisms, she’d been awkward under his gaze. He looked at her as though he really saw her. She stared back, paying attention to him in a way she normally didn’t, somehow caught by the electric way the air crackled between them. His body was made for sin—strengthened by the simple hard work of training racehorses—and a perfect advertisement for jeans with his narrow hips, strong thighs and arse. Many trainers were observers, and their staff did the work for them. Not Lee. His style of leadership was hands on. His attitude being that if a job needed doing, he couldn’t expect his staff to do it if he wasn’t willing to do it too. She often found him sweeping up at the end of the morning’s work after sending his staff to have brunch, or carrying water buckets, or mucking out boxes. His hands were probably roughened by work, calluses on his palms, like she used to have. She ran her thumb over her soft palm, all signs of her career gone.
Slowly they’d gained a quiet relationship, the trainer who didn’t talk about himself, and the keen jockey who rode his horses every morning. They’d fallen into a routine over time without the same energy of that initial meeting. She often wondered if she’d misread things that day. Being used to her brother Shannon who liked horses more than he liked people, she noted the differences between the two of them. Shannon didn’t like to talk to people because he found social situations difficult, but Lee had a distance in the way he interacted with people as if he could stop himself getting hurt by them if he didn’t try, or maybe that was simply her ridiculous imagination. She’d respected his space, never pushing him to talk about his past, about what had driven him from England all the way down under.
If he only wanted to talk horses, she could do the same, and honestly, she could listen to his posh English accent and rich deep voice all day. His blue eyes reminded her of faded denim jeans, a rich colour which was so different to her brown-eyed family. Lee’s sharp features were combined with a hard determination to succeed in the often cut-throat competitive racing industry. She sighed, and Rachel spun around in front of her.
‘Am I walking too fast?’ her twin asked.
‘No. I was just wondering what happened to Tammy, I mean Tam’s Reward,’ Serena whispered, not sure she wanted the answer.
‘Lee retired him after your accident. I don’t think he was injured, you’d have to ask Shannon. They hang out in the pub together. Tammy’s doing dressage with a rider down Ballarat way now.’
Serena breathed out slowly, ‘Thank you. I kept an eye out for him in the nominations, but he never turned up and I’ve been afraid to ask.’
‘Did no one tell you?’
Serena shrugged. ‘They might have. I can’t remember stuff like that.’
‘You can ask me the same question a million times, Se, I’m here for you.’ Rachel waved her hand and Serena nodded once as she started walking down the long hallway again.
‘I’m glad he’s okay.’ She meant the horse, not Lee, although her neighbour’s reaction to her accident was never far away from her thoughts.
Serena woke up, groggy as usual, and let her eyes adjust to the light slowly. The gentle rhythm of Rachel’s car had sent her to sleep almost immediately; although it had been a restless uncomfortable sleep even with her travelling neck pillow to support her head. Rachel’s car smelled comforting with a vague hint of horse and leather under the clean interior.
‘How far to go?’ she asked.
‘Not long now, you’ve been asleep for most of the trip. I guess you needed it.’
‘Yeah.’ Serena looked around at the countryside, familiar yet somehow new with broad grassy paddocks and lone gum trees standing to attention. The wide open space soothed her, the way the hills rolled on forever, and she could feel the memory, in the beating of her heart, of galloping across those big paddocks on her pony when she’d been a kid. Laughing at Rachel as they raced together on Smokey and Dusty. For five months, she’d been surrounded by the sterile antiseptic smell of the rehab facility. She wanted to breathe in country air, dirt, hay, gum trees, horses. She wanted to run her fingers over the grass and connect to the earth again. To bury her face in a horse’s neck and feel their warmth against her skin.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Good thanks.’ Her head hardly throbbed at all. She thumbed open her phone and took a selfie to put up on her social media. #home #countrylife #braininjury #willrideagain #jockey #horseracing
‘Some things never change,’ Rachel laughed.
Serena chuckled, ‘You sound like Mama when you say that.’
‘Hey! There is life outside social media, you know.’
‘Not when you’ve been in rehab for five months.’ Serena heard Rachel’s sharp intake of breath, and gently pushed her on the shoulder, ‘It’s cool, Rach. Don’t stress about it. I’ve been thinking about this next phase of my recovery. I think I want to make the most of this opportunity.’
‘Opportunity?’ Rachel glanced at her before returning her focus to the road.
‘Yes, of not being dead.’
‘Serena! Please don’t joke about that.’
‘Really, Rachel? If I can’t joke about it with you, I have no one.’ Serena suppressed a growl at the truth in her words.
‘Fine. I suppose you want to put together some sort of absurd bucket list—all the things you want to do now that you survived.’
Serena gasped as Rachel’s throwaway comment hit the target perfectly. ‘Yes. That’s a brilliant idea. A survival list—all the things I was too busy to do before, or not brave enough to.’ Serena’s first item on the list would be to kiss Lee. Her cheeks prickled with a flush of heat—she couldn’t believe she was thinking such a thing. In many ways he was practically her boss. Sort of. A trainer and jockey relationship was more symbiotic than boss and employee. And this obsession with kissing was new too. She wanted to growl under her breath at the confusion floating around.
‘Nothing that would hurt your head. No roller-coasters, or bungy jumping, or anything.’
‘I realise that. I don’t actually want to die. I meant things like seeing an opera at the Sydney Opera House. Dad always meant to take us, and never got to it.’ Serena had complicated feelings about Dad. She’d spent two years arguing with him about the impact his gambling addiction had on Mama, the rest of the family, and the farm. Her accident had made her realise how much of her life she’d dedicated to soothing their home life. After Rachel left home when they were both sixteen, Dad had fallen deeper into his addiction, chasing his losses harder than ever before, and he’d almost lost the farm. After he died, her oldest brother, John, had worked his arse off to put Merindah Park back into the black, while she’d done the emotional work, alongside Mama, of holding the family together.
‘I would love to do that with you. Jacob will come too.’ Rachel’s relationship with Dad had been quite different, but then, they were made from the same cloth so to speak. Both wild and willing to leap at new things, and chase excitement. Always getting into scrapes and charming their way out of it.
‘He doesn’t have to.’ Serena shouldn’t have opened her big mouth about this idea. The opera. God, her brain had betrayed her by blurting out that suggestion.
‘Better him than our surly brother Shannon.’ Rachel joked, but Serena would rather just the two of them did this. She didn’t need to be reminded that Rachel had found love with Jacob, the star footy player who’d grown up beside them in Tranquil Waters. They’d put their wedding on hold because of her injury. Just another thing to chalk on her internal tally of the ways her accident had impacted the whole family. She liked Jacob, and he was great for Rachel—understanding she couldn’t be caged—but to be a third wheel at an event she shouldn’t have chosen sounded awful.
‘Between you and Jacob, and John and Toshiko, maybe I should just go with Shannon,’ Serena said. The more she thought about it, the idea of going to the opera sounded like hard work. She found loud noises very tiring—her neurologist called it noise sensitivity—with some noises more jarring than others.
‘Because you are both single? No, that’s not what I meant. For a long time, all I wanted was to be single. I sucked at relationships, and I would never judge anyone for making a choice. I simply meant we could all go—to support you.’
‘The whole family? Maybe.’ Serena hoped she didn’t hear pity in Rachel’s voice, and she couldn’t bring herself to say no to her own stupid idea, not when Rachel was so keen to help. She wanted everyone to see her as a survivor, not someone ill and helpless. She’d pushed herself so hard over the last five months to prove she would survive, and not just that, she would make a comeback to riding. She didn’t want anyone undermining her efforts.
‘What else? Promise me you won’t swim with sharks.’
‘What about whale sharks? They are gentle, plus what happened to the Rachel of old? You used to push me to branch out away from Merindah Park and Tranquil Waters.’ She remembered many arguments with Rachel because they couldn’t understand each other’s life choices. She’d never been wild like Rachel, and when Rachel’s life had gone sour at sixteen and she’d moved away for new opportunities, Serena had naturally gravitated to being responsible. Sensible. She always assessed risks before taking them on, even the horses she rode on race day were ones she’d ridden plenty of times in trackwork, so she knew their quirks. Ironic to have an accident due to gear failure on a horse she’d spent months working with and had ridden on race day for all his six starts since he’d arrived in Lee’s stable. Relief that Tammy hadn’t been hurt loosened the tightness in her upper chest.
‘I don’t want you to get hurt again. You are my twin, Se, I don’t know what I’d do without you.’
‘Funny how an accident makes you realise this.’
‘The accident cemented feelings I already knew. I’ve always loved you as you are—sure I didn’t understand you for ages—but you’ve always been there for me even when I didn’t want it, and now I—’
‘Don’t be so serious, Rach, it doesn’t suit you. Has Jacob’s law degree been rubbing off on you?’
‘Probably.’ Rachel’s voice held a wistful note.
‘How about eat a five-star meal at one of the world’s greatest restaurants?’ Serena changed the subject quickly and tried to ignore the jealous twinge in her gut. If she’d been brave enough before the accident, maybe she would have kissed Lee already. Maybe she’d already know if she could take a chance on love. She swallowed. Her imagination was getting away on her again. Real life wasn’t like books, it was much more confusing, and blokes were never as easy to be interested in. Besides, a taciturn horseman was hardly a keeper in the romance stakes. How many opportunities had she passed up to kiss someone simply because she’d been worried it wasn’t perfect? It wasn’t like she’d kissed no one. Of course she’d done the whole teenage sloppy necking behind the bike shed with a few different boys, just like everyone else at their high school. Tony had been pretty good at kissing—she might have gone all the way with him, except for the bigoted way he’d responded to Rachel’s outing. That single event at sixteen had taught them both the value of real friends. With hardly any other opportunities in a small town, she was still a virgin. Not by choice, it’d just worked out that way.
‘What about a hot air balloon ride? It’s gentle yet exciting.’
‘Yeah, that could be a fun rush without hurting my brain.’ Serena was glad for the suggestion. She needed to focus on something other than Lee. All this introspection about him felt out of character too. She hardly gave him any thought outside their working relationship, except for the odd occasion when she beat her past self up for not being brave enough to ask him on a date. The chemistry on the day they’d met had faded until she wondered if she’d imagined it. He’d probably say no anyway.
‘Maybe I should go on a date with a stranger?’ Serena asked. Maybe she should find some hot guy, who wasn’t Lee, and fuck him just to get the whole virginity thing dealt with. She cringed a little at the idea of touching someone she didn’t know.
‘Sure. Have a crack. If anyone deserves to find happiness, it’s you. I—’
‘Yes, I know. You used to bang on about it all the time before …’ before my accident.
Rachel groaned, ‘Don’t remind me. Jacob says I shouldn’t try and make you into me. We are our own people.’
‘He’s very wise.’
‘Fuck, don’t tell him that!’ Rachel laughed. ‘Hey, you could combine two things: take a stranger to the opera.’
‘That sounds like a disaster in the making.’ Serena couldn’t imagine the impact of having a meltdown at the opera, brought on by too many loud noises and bright lights, in front of a stranger who wouldn’t know what to do.
‘Or a brilliant story for your memoir.’
Serena rubbed her temples. This conversation was making her head ache. ‘My what?’
‘Inspirational book about your journey. I have a friend, Vanessa, who is an author. She mentioned the other day that she’d love to ghostwrite your story, and then you’ll have another thing to tick off your survival list—published a book.’
Serena closed her eyes and focused on forming her sentence. ‘Okay.’
Rachel’s response seemed to come from far away, and Serena knew she needed to sleep again. ‘Are you alright?’
She managed to do a thumbs up before she drifted off again. An image of a list hovered in her dream state with 1. Kiss Lee at the top followed by 2. Ride again. 3. Buy a yearling at the Easter sales …