The finale to my bestselling Eventing Series arrives February 22, 2022. Before you panic, there WILL be another series after this one featuring Jules and Pete – along with all the friends they’ve made along the way, and some new arrivals. I’ll have a sneak peek of this new series in the back of Home, so don’t miss what comes next!
In Home, Jules deals with the fall-out of the explosive news she received at the end of Prospect, and sets off on a quest to find the place she and Pete can finally call home.
For a special preview of Chapter One of Home, read on.
You can preorder Home from Amazon here: https://amzn.to/3rxzxhj
And from my Author Direct store here: https://payhip.com/b/PlJy5 (through Feb. 21 only).
New to The Eventing Series? Read the prequel, Bold, for free when you sign up for my newsletter here: StoryOrigin.
The Eventing Series is available in ebook, audiobook, and paperback. Read the entire series on Kindle Unlimited through May 7, 2022.
CHAPTER ONE: HOME
Mickey tugged at the bit, asking for room to run, and for a moment, I was tempted to let him have it.
After all, there was no one around to be shocked at the trainer of Alachua Eventing Co-op, galloping her horse like a madwoman in the pasture on a quiet August day. Breaking all her own rules, because it was hot and sticky, the high sky of late summer white around the edges, as if the blue was being leached away by sheer heat.
I was rarely alone in summer, but the farm was quiet for a rare hour. Pete was riding a horse in Ocala, and the barn kids had all decamped to High Springs for lunch at the sandwich shop. Going out to lunch had been the new novelty for them this summer, thanks to a few of the older kids acquiring driver’s licenses and cars—plus the addition of Kit to our farm line-up. Kit brought a new level of fun-loving, good-natured spirit to Alachua Eventing Co-op. Everyone loved her, and everyone wanted to drag her to lunch and ask her about her horses, and the World Equestrian Games, and what it was like to go from the Young Riders program to becoming an international competitor.
She certainly took the pressure off me right when I needed the help. Adding her as an assistant instructor was a stroke of genius on my part, if I did say so myself.
And I wasn’t even that jealous of her.
I mean, okay, I was a little jealous of Kit. And sometimes, at four o’clock in the morning when I couldn’t sleep, I would lay next to Pete and listen to Marcus snoring gently and think about Kit making the team while I retired my Advanced horse, Dynamo, from upper-level competition.
And I’d think about how Kit was young, younger even than me, and she was now a hot prodigy on the eventing circuit. While I was almost thirty, and pregnant. Pregnant, while Kit was still in her mid-twenties and definitely not pregnant, and competing at a higher level than I had been at her age.
And who still had an Advanced horse in Big Dan, while I had one retiree, one horse running at Intermediate who might be ready to step up before I took off for maternity, and one horse being ridden by one of my students—who was almost certainly going to buy him.
Which left me with just Mickey when I came back from my maternity break, in the spring.
One horse in competition, when I once had six.
But I wasn’t going to dwell on that. No—I wasn’t washed up quite yet. I just had a few things to take care of, and then I’d be back in the running for top-level competition, and Kit had better watch out then!
“Just a few, small things,” I said to myself, running a hand over the bump in my riding tights, and at that moment, Mickey sensed the looseness in my left rein and plunged forward.
So, we were galloping now. I pushed my hands down on his neck and let him go.
“Yes,” I sighed, feeling him rev up beneath me. It had been too long since we’d galloped.
He had a long, powerful stride—Mickey had been a racehorse before he’d been my big event horse, and he remembered how to use his body for maximum efficiency, digging down against the bit and throwing his weight onto his forelegs to give his hindquarters more room to act as the engine. I let him use this gallop to our advantage on the long lanes between jump complexes on the cross-country course; Mickey could make time on the hottest, most oppressive Florida day, when all those bulky half-Thoroughbred, half-warmbloods were starting to feel every inch of their extra height and bone. The eventing community had moved from its roots, no longer scavenging former cavalry mounts and racehorses and instead breeding powerful jumping machines, but the ex-racehorse still had a shot in this fast-moving world of elite equestrian sport. The big horses simply couldn’t outrun the Thoroughbreds, not forever.
So, I let Mickey run. This was just my big horse and me, galloping across the broad fields as if our lives depended on it, and it felt amazing.
I laughed with exhilaration, and his ears flicked back to listen before he doubled down and lengthened his stride once more, his hooves making a satisfying thunder on the ground.
Ahead of us, the fence line appeared, black boards making a bold barricade against the jungle-green grass. I let Mickey’s long strides swing south, the horse running with confident self-assurance as he found the coop between the two pastures without having to be told. A cross-country horse running on autopilot—now that was the dream. He steadied himself as the coop rushed up to us, and I made sure I was out of his way before he took the jump, soaring out of stride like a steeplechaser.
I slipped the reins through my open fingers, giving him his head as he landed, and he found his stride and took off again, breath coming loudly through his cupped nostrils.
I resisted the urge to whoop with pleasure, but in my brain, I was howling at the pale moon overhead.
This was living—this was life—this was everything!
Mickey swept towards the farthest corner of the farm, hooves drumming a steady beat on the ground.
Then the sun went behind a cloud, taking the glitter out of the day with startling suddenness. A rumble seemed to lift out of the surrounding air, and I knew that the best gallop in the world couldn’t outrun a Florida storm.
Time to go back to the barn. Now I just had to get this big horse under control. I reined back gently, wobbling the bit, trying to get his attention without yanking. I didn’t care for sudden movements or sharp tugs these days; they seemed to strain the skin around my stomach, which was already working pretty hard without being tested by a tough horse. It took a while to get Mickey’s mind back on me.
But in the farthest corner of the field, Mickey finally slowed, his need to gallop sated at last. I sat down in the saddle as he settled down to a walk, head nodding. The blood vessels on his neck popped up from his hot skin, hustling to get the oxygen through his body. He threw his head, tossing foam from his bit through the air to land on my shirt and boots.
“That was tough work, buddy,” I told him, “but you seemed to have a good time.”
A new peal of thunder rolled through the pastures and lapped around the pine trees at the edges of the farm, like water splashing against a seawall. The storm was coming up quickly. Mickey didn’t so much as flick an ear at the sound, but I turned him towards the barn, keeping close to the fence-line and the imaginary safety of the tall pines on the other side. Lightning hadn’t struck me yet, not in nearly thirty years of Florida life, and it probably wouldn’t today, but I still preferred not to be the tallest object in the middle of a pasture when a storm blew in.
Still, when my phone starting buzzing madly from the pocket on my riding tights, I hesitated a moment before I pulled it out. There was something magnetic about phones, right? But they couldn’t attract lightning, could they?
I would be the first to admit to myself, although to no one else, that maybe I didn’t pay enough attention in high school and there were some gaps in my knowledge of anything that wasn’t horses. Pregnancy had certainly taught me I knew more about horse anatomy than human. Every doctor’s appointment was a new and unpleasant journey through my own body, as the doctor and nurses explained, in unnecessary detail, all the things happening inside.
I told them I was better off not knowing all of it, but they had some crazy idea that knowledge was important.
I gave in and pulled out my sweaty phone, grimacing at the dampness on the glass face. Then I saw the name on the screen and made an even more disgusted face. Suwannee Valley Health.
Ugh, ugh, ugh. The doctor again.
The practice’s full name was Suwannee Valley Health Associates of Alachua, and everyone in the office was very nice, including my main doctor, Alberta Waddell, but just because they were pleasant people didn’t mean I wanted to talk to any of them outside of an appointment. Of which I already had too many—I’d been to the doctor more times in the past three months than at any point in the past five years of professional riding in Ocala. Poked and prodded and smeared with goo—I was starting to see what sporthorses must feel like, with our constant ultrasounds and MRIs and X-rays, all our “just to be sure nothing’s going on in there” diagnostics.
I poked the green button unwillingly and hit the speakerphone option. “Jules here,” I announced, as lightning raised a crackle on the line.
Mickey flicked his ears at the sound of my voice, so much louder than usual.
“Ms. Thornton,” a receptionist replied. She had a twangy Southern accent. “This is Suzie at Suwannee Valley Health Associates.” As if every phone didn’t broadcast the caller’s name already. “Just calling to ask if you have time to speak with Dr. Waddell. Would that be alright?”
“I can’t come in for an appointment, if that’s what you mean,” I replied evasively, thinking of the time it would take to shower Mickey and put him away, shower myself and get dressed, and drive down to Alachua. It would be three o’clock before I got there. And I was really counting on a nap after this ride. A surprise appointment would eat the entire afternoon.
“No, just on the phone, honey.”
Oh. “Yeah, that’s fine,” I said. A sharp crack of thunder punctuated my words, and I looked around for the leading edge of the storm. There it was, dark clouds lined with cottony white, cresting the top of the pine forest to our west. It would be pouring in five minutes. I mentally measured the walk back to the barn. Four minutes?
“Ms. Thornton?” Dr. Waddell’s voice was the opposite of Suzie’s: slower, low-pitched. She was Canadian. “How are you today?”
“Just fine,” I said. “Taking it easy.”
Technically, I was. At my visit with Dr. Waddell last week, she’d asked me to go easy on myself while she waited for some test results to come back, and I’d immediately scaled back my riding and teaching plans. The gallop on Mickey might not have been planned, but I hadn’t done anything dangerous. Still, I couldn’t help but run my free hand over my belly. Everything felt okay in there. You’re fine, baby, I told my passenger, sure that telekinesis was part of the package with pregnancy.
It was hard to be pregnant. I couldn’t lie about that. My body was doing its best to work against me, and I was expected to do my best not to see it that way, but it was hard. Here we were in late August, and already everything felt different from the way I’d felt in June, when I’d found out the truth about the little flock of butterflies in my stomach. My boots didn’t fit properly, I was wearing riding tights instead of breeches for the first time in my life (and damn if they weren’t comfortable), and my balance had a way of changing from one day to the next.
Luckily, I had moved past randomly throwing up in the barn aisle, but not before the kids had gotten so used to it, no one even muttered, “Ew,” but just fell into a routine: one person handed me a bottle of water while someone else went for a shovel and scattered shavings on the spill so it could be scooped up and thrown on the manure pile.
And of course, Pete treated me like a crystal vase which could only be handled with white gloves, but that wasn’t as annoying now as it had been when he’d started it—only sweet, only a reminder of how thoughtful and kind and loving he was. Pete, my fiancé, who didn’t mind at all that I was completely unwilling to discuss a wedding. I had too much else going on to even think about something so insane, and he got it.
He was in the same position, after all.
Dr. Waddell started to speak, then paused as a crackle of lightning broke up our conversation for a moment. “Are you outside?” she asked, distracted.
“Yes,” I admitted, hoping the squeak of leather wouldn’t give away just where outside I was.
“In this heat?”
“I’m used to it.”
A sigh. “Ms. Thornton—”
“Can you call me Jules? I’m sorry, I’m just not used to the other way.”
“Jules.” Dr. Waddell’s voice was almost warm, which was a nice change. “Here’s the thing. Nothing is wrong, but I have to advise you take extra care.”
And then she started talking about numbers and levels and weights and a lot of other stuff that all added up to one thing by the time Mickey stopped at the closed pasture gate and I had to hop down to open it. Not really hop, either—I got down from the saddle very slowly and cautiously, causing my horse to turn and look at me curiously as I tried to hit the ground as lightly as possibly.
I told Dr. Waddell thanks and agreed to come back in a week’s time, and then I slid the phone into the pocket of my tights. For a moment, I didn’t know what to do. Not now, not this week, not this season. My world had just shifted, and honestly, this many moves in a single year were just about more than I knew how to handle.
I was supposed to have two more months—two more months in which to finish qualifying Mickey for our goal events next spring, two more months to make our mark as a team who couldn’t be split up. By mid-October, we’d have the finishes we needed and I could gracefully bow out for the winter, returning next spring with a new Advanced horse ready for serious competition at the highest levels.
These last two months were supposed to be the glue that held us—and my career—together.
I looked at Mickey, his dark mane blowing back in the suddenly gusty wind. The light was going quickly and his near-white coat, darkened with sweat, was the color of slate. His breath had calmed nicely on the walk back to the barn; Mickey was blindingly, brilliantly fit. Ready for a full fall eventing season.
But apparently, I was not.
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