I’m very proud of my first Ocala Horse Girl today. Posey Malone, take a bow! The first of my equestrian romance series, The Project Horse, takes a finalist spot in the American Horse Publications’ 2023 awards. The category is best Equine-Related Fiction. In 2020, my novel The Hidden Horses of New York took this prize!
I think The Project Horse has what it takes to go all the way! In this novel, horse country ex-pat Posey Malone comes home again after spending ten years as a struggling copywriter in New York City…and finds out a few things have changed while she’s been gone. Thrust into the equestrian world so quickly she practically gets whiplash, Posey finds herself working alongside her ex-boyfriend Adam Salazar at his family’s Thoroughbred breeding and training farm. He’s the guy that pushed her out of horses a decade before, but Adam seems different now.
Different…and eager to make up for his past transgressions, although she’s not sure she wants to trust him. But when Posey bets him he can’t retrain a project horse to win a horse show class as quickly as she can, their uneasy relationship charges out of the gate!
Along with the fun and horsey romance taking place, readers also get to know Posey’s friends Evie Ballenger and Kayla Moore, who become the stars of their own stories in The Regift Horse and The Sweetheart Horse.
Now available in ebook from my store at NatalieKReinert.shop, as well as the Amazon Kindle store: The Regift Horse, Book 3 of Ocala Horse Girls!
Evie has struggled to find meaning in her equestrian life after retiring her heart horse. So when her cousin concocts a plan to regift her Christmas horse to Evie, she’s on board with the idea…although she’s less certain when she finds out it comes with a boarding and training contract.
Malcolm Horsham is a notorious terror on the eventing circuit, especially where his staff is concerned. But when he offers Evie a shot at training with him for six months, she goes against the gossip and gives him a chance.
Is Malcolm going to grind his new working student into the ground? Or will Evie take every chance he gives her to pull aside his tough armor and find the nice guy within?
It’s a romance – take a guess. But the fun is definitely in the journey!
Have an amazing time with The Regift Horse…I know I had an amazing time writing it!
Where to find it:
My store – ebooks you can read on any device, including Kindles: nataliekreinert.shop
Fulfilling a dream for a friend? That’s all in a day’s work for Katie, who (almost) single-handedly saved Sea Horse Ranch and Hell and Dammit Cay from ruination. So when the island’s resident old salt, Marchant, has a brush with death that leaves him longing to satisfy some of his long-deferred desires, Katie is on the job.
It’s just one more thing on her plate, but Katie is pretty sure she can keep all her plates spinning. Add in a new friend, a long-lost relative, and some stormy weather, and you’re in for a fabulous beach read in this second installment of Sea Horse Ranch.
What an awesome launch of my first Kickstarter! 73% funded in the first two days…which means the audiobook of FOALING SEASON is close to getting produced. I’m so (cautiously) thrilled with the early response to this project.
It’s time to admit that producing books of any kind is not free. Whether an author is working on a publisher advance or an Amazon preorder system (which was my previous method of funding), the basic principles remain: electricity has to keep running, groceries have to be purchased, editing and design programs have to be paid for, and the rent must be paid. All while the book is in production!
If you preordered Book 2 of Briar Hill Farm, FRIENDS WITH HORSES, from Amazon, you got an email telling you the preorder was cancelled. That was Amazon’s call, not mine. But it’s okay, because I’m moving away from the Amazon preorder model to fund my books. Instead, I’m going to work with some new techniques…including Kickstarter.
And so it’s really important to know that a Kickstarter is not a donation – it’s a prepurchase with some great perks attached to thank you for jumping in before the product is complete. Even at the $5 backer level, you’ll get an exclusive short story written in the Briar Hill Farm world.
There are also exclusive digital and physical media packages, with perks like adding yourself to the books, or even adding your business!
So, please consider joining me in a better way to fund book production. And get some audiobooks produced, so more people can enjoy reading! Visit Kickstarter and check out the Briar Hill Farm page. Find the reward level that’s right for you. And share with friends who might love reading or giving the gift of fiction.
Signed paperbacks and hardcovers of my upcoming release Foaling Season (Briar Hill Farm: Book One) are available to order for a limited time!
I’m doing a presale now through July 31st through my Author Direct store hosted by Payhip. Signed paperbacks and hardcovers will ship around August 15th, 2022 – but you’ll receive an instant ebook download when you order! So you can start reading the new book right away.
I’m excited to offer a beautifully designed paperback and hardcover edition of Foaling Season. This is the first time I’m able to release a hardcover alongside the ebook! My hardcovers are printed by Ingram, a world leader in book publishing, and feature cream colored paper, matte covers, and blue cloth binding.
Order your signed books from my store by July 31st!
I am excited to bring the first book in my new series to you next month!
Foaling Season is Book One of Briar Hill Farm, a collection of novels bringing together some of your (and my) favorite characters from my various Ocala Equestrian Collection novels. Book One heavily features Jules and Kit (The Eventing Series), and Alex and Gigi (The Alex & Alexander Series), along with some others. Future books will feature big contributions from Grace (Show Barn Blues) and Amanda (The Eventing Series).
If you’ve never read these series, no problem – the Briar Hill Farm books will be perfect for first-time readers of my work. But be warned – you’re going to want to go back and read more about these characters once you’ve gotten to know them!
Read Chapter One of Foaling Season now!
Foaling Season, by Natalie Keller Reinert
Chapter One: Jules
“Close,” Alex told me, fighting a smile. “But you’re missing something. Look at it again, Jules!”
Beside me, Lindsay barked with laughter. “At last, we’ve found something Jules Thornton-Morrison isn’t perfect at!”
“Well, as far as I know, she can’t train a racehorse, either,” Alex said smugly.
“Oh, sick burn.” Lindsay squeezed my thigh with mock sympathy. “You gonna be okay, mama?”
“Teenagers are so annoying,” I sighed. “When do you turn twenty again? In a year and a half? I’m counting the days.”
I let Lindsay shake back her hot pink hair in exasperation while I dropped my gaze to the broad striped beach towel spread on the concrete barn aisle before us. I couldn’t see anything wrong with the instruments, bottles, and boxes I’d set out for Alex’s inspection. Prepping for my first-ever foal was scarier than galloping up to an Advanced-level ditch and wall. Maybe even scarier than prepping for my own firstborn had been. At least he was asleep in his stroller, safely out in the world.
Carla’s foal was still waiting in the womb. And as usual, I was far too attached to my pretty bay broodmare, even if she’d been an impulse buy at the Ocala Breeders’ Sale pavilion just a few months ago.
I looked across the contents of my foaling kit at Alex. She’d been half of the Whitehall couple running world-renowned Cotswold Farm in Ocala for a long time. There weren’t many breeding scenarios she hadn’t encountered. I had no idea why she’d agreed to oversee my foaling out Carla here at Briar Hill. I should have sent the mare to Cotswold Farm to foal.
But I wasn’t the sort of person who turned my back on a hard job. And it was annoying to know there was something in the equestrian universe that frightened me. I wasn’t easily scared. Let’s call it frustrated, instead. I ran a hand through my short hair, ruffling it. That didn’t give me any clues. “Well?”
Alex’s blue eyes sparkled, and a secret smile was hiding at the corners of her mouth. I knew that smile. Alex had a secret and she wasn’t sharing. She wanted me to sweat first.
I was usually in charge; Alex had been taking riding lessons from me for years. So I guess this was her time to shine.
But honestly, girl, come on! How long could she stand there and smirk at me?
“You’re holding out on me,” I accused her, folding my arms across my chest. “This isn’t a textbook thing. I know, because I read everything you made me read. You’ve got some kind of folksy witchcraft thing up your sleeve, don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” Alex agreed, her smile finally escaping and casting a sunny glow over her tanned face. Alex was a few years older than me—somewhere in her mid-thirties to my twenty-eight—and while I was the more accomplished equestrian in the horse showing and eventing world, she was a respected racehorse trainer and breeder. Neither of us ever missed an opportunity to lord it over the other when we discovered we had some bit of arcane horseman’s wisdom the other didn’t yet possess. Her grin was fit to bust her cheeks as she said, “Trust me, you want this in your foaling kit. Want a hint? It comes from the soda and snack aisle at the grocery store.”
I shook my head, mystified. There was nothing in Blessed Are The Broodmares about picking up essential supplies for the birth of one’s upcoming foal in the soda and snack aisle. If there was, I’d know about it, because I’d practically memorized the book, at Alex’s insistence—and then I’d made Lindsay read it, too. She fit it in around college classes and barn work, grumbling, but I stuck to my guns. Lindsay would end up as my assistant if Carla went into labor during the daytime hours and Pete was off riding a client’s horse somewhere. I wasn’t about to deal with my first-ever foaling on my own.
I looked back at Lindsay. “It’s not in the book, right?”
Lindsay shrugged. “The only thing in my brain right now is this paper I’m currently not writing for my humanities class.”
“Oh, would you rather be back at your apartment writing a humanities paper? Don’t let me stop you.”
She rolled her eyes at my acidic tone. Once people knew me long enough, they started ignoring my sarcasm. And Lindsay could give as good as she got, anyway. “I’ll get it written tonight. I want to ride Jim Dear, and then stop by the co-op barn and visit with William. The kid leasing him is on vacation this week, so he needs extra carrots.”
“Oh, that’s nice. I think Ariel’s doing a nice job with him. Didn’t she they was going on vacation, but it’s hard to keep up with everyone now that I’m only teaching a couple of nights a week—”
“Can we focus?” Alex demanded. “This foaling kit is not finished!”
“Did she miss the empty soda bottle?” an amused voice called from behind us. Her crisp British accent made my head turn like it was on a swivel.
A slim young woman with a baby in her arms stood in the shade of the stable overhang, and I momentarily forgot everything else in the world but my infant son.
“Is everything okay with Jack, Gemma?” I rose to my feet, steadying myself with a hand on Lindsay’s shoulder when my hips protested. More than a month after Jack’s completely straightforward birth, I still felt like my body was trying to readjust to post-partum life—and frankly, struggling pretty hard.
Gemma tipped her chin over the infant’s dark, wispy hair and gave him a little kiss. I felt a surge of jealousy ripple through me—entirely unnecessary, since Gemma was a relative, Jack’s nanny, and the nicest girl on the planet, but jealousy was apparently my response to everyone who came near my son. I’d turned into the broodiest of mares since Jack came on the scene.
“Everything’s fine,” Gemma assured me in a sing-song voice. “Little Jackie-boy just wanted some sunshine, so we came outside to see what everyone was up to without us.”
I also didn’t like it when people called him ‘Jackie-boy,’ but Lindsay had informed me I sounded like a crazy person when I made up a million rules for how to address my child, so I’d stopped reminding people, “His name is Jack,” every time they added a cute suffix to the end.
“I’ll take him,” I told her, opening my arms. “Thanks for watching him for a little while.”
Gemma gave me an amused glance as she handed Jack over. “I think I had him for twenty minutes,” she said, pushing her dark curls behind her ears. Tiny silver horseshoes glistened in each lobe. “You sure you couldn’t use a longer break, mama?”
She used Lindsay’s nickname for me, not knowing that my snarky working student had labeled me mama after she overheard some grooms at a horse show calling all the bitey, mean-faced mares “Mama.”
Gemma was incapable of snark. She was my total opposite, if you didn’t count loving horses, Jack, and Pete as attributes.
“I’m fine,” I assured her. I let the feeling of holding Jack to my chest wash over me—a warmth which spread from my heart to my fingertips with just a few quick breaths. Even at my most exhausted, I felt better clutching him close. Before he was a week old, my mom said I had the worst case of attachment she’d ever seen and told Pete to get me a nanny ASAP. I told her to mind her own business. It was the first argument I’d had with my mom since I’d gotten pregnant, and it felt like old times.
But that was the only thing which had gone back to normal since I’d had Jack.
“Jules,” Alex said. “The missing piece of your foaling kit. Focus.”
I turned around again. Lindsay and Alex were still sitting on the concrete barn aisle, looking up at me. Lindsay batted her eyes with exaggerated innocence.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Tell me.”
“Gemma gave it away,” Alex informed me. “It’s an empty soda bottle.”
“Good grief, how could I ever guess that?”
“Well, she said it came from the soda aisle,” Lindsay muttered.
“But seriously—” I gave Lindsay a little shove with my foot. “What could I possibly use an empty soda bottle for? At a foaling?”
“You just pour in some sand,” Alex explained, “and if the placenta is taking its time coming out, you tie the bottle to what’s hanging there with some baling twine, and the weight slowly helps the placenta work its way out. You don’t need much sand,” she added thoughtfully, looking over the bottle. “Just kind of balance the weight of the placenta in one hand and the weight of the bottle in the other until you get it right.”
I felt my insides, still battered by childbirth, go crashing together. “You do what?”
Lindsay snickered. Like she’d had any idea.
“Say the placenta is halfway out,” Gemma began, but I held up a hand to my husband’s cousin, while silently registering that she had more breeding experience than I’d realized. Could be useful.
“I’m sorry,” I told my amused audience, taking a step back and leaning against the nearest stall front. “I’m not prepared to talk about placentas yet.”
“Part of the process,” Lindsay intoned solemnly. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”
“Let’s hear how much you want to chit-chat about placentas when you’ve just had a baby,” I snapped. Jack stirred, shifting his face against my neck, and I lowered my voice. “You won’t be so blasé then, Miss Lindsay.”
“A baby,” Lindsay snorted. “Never. Not in a million years.”
“That’s what I said when I was nineteen, too.”
Alex shook her head, looking between the two of us in wonder. “You two bicker like sisters, you know that?”
“They really do,” Gemma agreed. “It’s pretty funny. They look alike, too, if you don’t count the hair.”
“No, we don’t,” Lindsay muttered, standing up and brushing sand from her riding breeches. “People need to stop saying that. I’m going to ride Jim.”
Alex reached into her tote bag and produced a two-liter soda bottle. “Allow me to present your first-ever placenta bottle.”
I watched her place it in the center of my foaling kit, balancing it lightly on the beach towel. “May it be my last,” I said.
“Only one foal, Jules?”
I put my nose to Jack’s fuzzy head. It wasn’t the same thing, I reminded myself. Foals lasted a season and then they were naughty yearlings, lanky two-year-olds, and finally three-year-olds ready to start their lives.
Also, the mare did the carrying and the labor and the early months of discipline.
“Maybe more,” I allowed. “We’ll see how this one goes.”
“I’m lending you an easy mare to be Carla’s mama buddy, anyway,” Alex said, getting up and brushing off her jeans. “Just waiting to see who seems to be on the same schedule.”
“Are you heading back to Ocala?” I asked. Looked like our little lunch party was breaking up. It was nice to have everyone over, especially in late February when the north Florida weather was still pleasant. Soon enough, we’d be wilting in the barn aisle, trying to get a breath of fresh air. Pete and I had decided on a shed-row style stable for our horses, rather than building a closed-in, center aisle barn. The open breezeway, with stalls lining it, was our attempt to capitalize on the cool air beneath the canopy of live oaks shrouding the high ground of the farm, where the farm’s 1920s cottage and old barns were located.
“Yeah,” Alex said, putting my foaling kit items back into their shiny silver bucket. “I have things to do. Farm living, never stops, even on a Saturday.”
“I know it. Once Pete gets back from Ocala, I have lessons to teach at the co-op.”
“Should just let me drop Jack off with Pete.” Alex grinned as my smile vanished. “I’m joking! I know you’d never trust me to drive Jack around.”
“It’s not personal,” I protested. “It’s just—”
“I know.” Alex squeezed my free shoulder, the one which didn’t have a snoozing infant drooling all over it. “It’s okay. You’re new at this. Maiden mares are the same way. Whinnying and spinning in circles while their foals learn to canter. By the third foal, they can’t be bothered to stop grazing.”
Jack wriggled in my arms, pressing against me even in his sleep, and I wrapped my arms more securely around him. I wished I was an experienced old mare, calmly working my way through a grass pasture while my foal learned to buck and play and tumble with friends.
Horses were so straightforward. Humanity was ridiculously complex. Raising new humans? Forget it. I was losing my mind.
Take this afternoon, for example.
I loved teaching my students at Alachua Eventing Co-op. An entire stable full of wonderful kids who doted on me, and parents who had come together and founded an entire boarding stable co-op because they wanted me to teach and train their children. Yet despite this apparent devotion, I’d had so many spats and difficult run-ins with the governing co-op board that I’d lost faith in them and ultimately moved off the property, giving up my sweet little 1950s Florida house and the ease of living just steps from a large barn, riding arenas, and full jumping course. I’d left my long-time barn manager, Lacey, in charge of the horses, while I stepped down to part-time riding instructor.
This new farm, which Pete and I had called Briar Hill Farm—after the mighty eventing stable his grandfather had run, and where Pete and I had first fallen in love—needed rebuilt in some places, and fitted out from the ground up in others. An old-fashioned Florida ranch, the acreage had been divided into several large pastures, some of them fenced only with unfriendly barbed wire. The main barn was falling down in several places and really only good for hay and feed storage, so we’d had to build the new barn first, while wooden fencing went up for paddocks in the meantime.
Now, thankfully, the barn was up, the paddocks were fenced, and the arena was finally complete. We could focus on updating the old cottage…well, once we had the time and energy to think about it.
For the moment, it was enough to try and care for the horses we had here, while Pete drove nearly an hour down to Ocala to work horses and I drove the couple of miles up the road to teach riding lessons at the co-op.
Had life been easier when I lived at the co-op? Logistically, yes.
But it was immeasurably more comforting to own my own farm for the first time in my life. I was no longer one serious fight from being homeless. And I’d been homeless, along with my horses, more times than I cared to recall.
With Jack along for the ride? I couldn’t even comprehend it.
Bad enough leaving him with Gemma while I went to the co-op to teach.
I wished I could take him with me, but teaching in the hot sun would be too much for the little guy. Still, I’d ache for him the entire time. That was the thing about motherhood so far, the part I’d never expected: when I was too tired to care what happened to me, I wanted Jack in my arms.
I didn’t know this would happen, although to be fair, I’d never even stopped to consider what I’d do with a baby if I ever had one, honestly. Jack hadn’t been part of my life plan. But, by the time I realized he was coming, my plans had already been so shaken up that I hadn’t even second-guessed whether I could handle a baby on top of everything else.
I just accepted things were going to get a little crazier.
And it was hard to imagine, sometimes, that life could always get crazier. But it did. It always did. Just look at me, and wonder how it could all shake out this way: from the top of the eventing world rolling in sponsorships and upper-level horses, to new mom and the proud owner of just one (one, singular!) upper-level horse and one retiree, in just nine short months.
Jules Thornton, ladies and gentleman.
At the end of the shed-row, my beagle Marcus stood up and barked at a squirrel, his deep voice echoing through the trees. In the paddock nearby, Mickey turned his head to look at us, dark gray forelock falling over his white face and button-black eyes.
My one upper-level horse. Tall, gray, and handsome. Danger Mouse was wondering when he was getting back to work. I’d dropped the Alachua prefix from his name when my client Clayton Spencer bought him from the Alachua Eventing Co-op and presented him to me as a housewarming present, but no one knew it yet, because I hadn’t taken him to a show or event since last autumn.
“Are you taking Mickey back to Alachua this afternoon?” Lindsay asked, returning from the paddock with Jim Dear. She hooked the small bay gelding into cross-ties in the shed-row. He watched her with pricked ears, hoping for more cookies. “You said a few days ago that Saturday was the day, remember?”
There were no jumps in our arena yet, which meant that when it was time to get Mickey back in shape, I needed to take him to the co-op barn.
But that meant I was getting back into the saddle.
Something I hadn’t yet been able to commit to trying, post-baby.
It wasn’t just the idea that forking myself over a saddle was going to ask my body to do things it was in no way prepared to do after childbirth. But that was part of it.
It was also other things: an awful, nagging fear of getting tossed and leaving Jack motherless—which was understandable—and a bone-deep listlessness which felt impossible to combat, which was not.
Lindsay didn’t know all of that, though. She was waiting for me to get back to being Jules Thornton-Morrison, Top Eventer, someone worth working for. I wanted to be that person. I just couldn’t remember how.
“I really should,” I admitted reluctantly, letting my mind wander through excuses for one which seemed plausible enough to keep Mickey in his paddock and my saddle gathering dust. “I don’t know if today will work, though. Do I even have time? Pete gets back at three and then I have a lesson at three-thirty? I have to hustle as soon as he gets here.”
I was carefully ignoring Gemma’s presence, still at the end of the shed-row looking at her phone while she waited for me to hand Jack back over to her. I hadn’t left him alone with her yet. Either Pete or I were always on the farm.
What could happen?
Who wanted to even imagine?
“I can hook up the trailer before I go,” Lindsay offered. “But you have to make up your mind now. I’ll get off Jim a few minutes early if you want me to do it.”
“Maybe not today, then,” I said quickly. “There’s no rush, anyway.”
“Are you kidding? You’re supposed to be taking him to Sunshine State next month.” Lindsay made a big show of taking her phone from her pocket, opening the calendar app, and showing me the date. April tenth.
Sunshine State Spring Horse Trials was in six weeks.
“You’ve done no real fitness work, he hasn’t jumped a full course since January, his dressage test is probably a mess.” Lindsay glibly counted off my failings as a horse trainer on her hand. “And we’re not even discussing your fitness in the saddle, which, frankly…” She trailed off, giving me a head-to-toe look so scathing that I felt myself blushing.
“Are you picking on Jules?” Alex was back suddenly. Where had she gone? Oh, right to put away the foaling kit. My memory was basically a bottle of bubbles at this point. “Can I join in? I haven’t picked on Jules in forever.”
“This seems unfair,” I pointed out. “Two against one.”
“No, you’re right. Lindsay, leave your boss alone. She’s trying her heart out.”
I was. I really was trying my heart out.
The problem was, my heart was out here, in my arms, instead of inside my body where it belonged.
“Listen, Jules, real quick—” Alex had her own thing to deal with. “You know I entered Tiger in the Novice Rider division at Sunshine State next month. But we’re kind of struggling…”
“Of course,” I said, trying to remember when we’d discussed it. “Right. Do you—um—want a lesson? I can probably make it down to your place next week.” I stopped short of making a commitment. Driving to Ocala right now was like driving to the moon. Baby bag! Baby carrier! Baby! Naps and nursing and the aching tiredness that crept over my arms as I drove, tingling in my fingers as the sixty miles between High Springs and Ocala ticked by slowly, so slowly. Gemma sitting in the back next to the car seat, wondering why I wouldn’t let her stay at home alone with Jack, too kind to ask what on earth was wrong with me.
“If you can make it.” Alex looked me over, her eyes narrowing slightly. I recognized that look. It was the gaze of a horsewoman assessing a lame horse. “Wanna walk me to my truck?”
Lindsay snorted and went back to curry-combing Jim Dear. “Why not just announce you don’t want me to overhear your conversation?”
“Doesn’t she wear you out?” Alex asked as we fell into step together. The walk from the new stable to the driveway was crunchy with leaves; the live oaks were in their enthusiastic spring shedding season and the leaves fell constantly, in slow spirals, burying the dark sand and thin grass. “Just the constant college-age angst and snark?”
“She reminds me of me,” I admitted. “And I was the literal worst.”
“That’s what I’ve heard,” Alex laughed. “So—about Tiger.” Her tone sobered. “I’m a little embarrassed. I’ve been riding this horse for two years and we just aren’t getting anywhere.”
“Because you don’t ride him consistently,” I reminded her. “Or you take him out for a jog on the training track when he needs to be concentrating on his transitions in an arena. It was easier when you had him boarded, wasn’t it?”
“It was,” Alex agreed. “Do you think I should move him again? I didn’t have much luck at the last boarding stable I tried, but it was a while ago. I have some new staff and some extra time. I could handle commuting to a barn. And I think I need the inspiration. Other riders around me, to push me.”
“Do you have a place in mind?” We paused next to the white seashell of a cottage where Pete, Jack and I lived. “You should go somewhere with a lot of teenagers, if you want to be inspired. They’re the hungriest riders of all.”
“Well,” Alex said, “what about the co-op?”
“The co-op?” I looked at her in surprise. “But it’s an hour from your place.”
“You said teenagers,” Alex shrugged, looking embarrassed. “There are plenty of them running around the co-op. And you’re going to be riding there, right? With Mickey? So you’ll be there a few hours a day, with lessons and everything. I could do a lesson with you once a week, and just ride around with the kids the rest of the time.”
I gently ran my fingers over Jack’s slumbering head, feeling cornered.
I knew Mickey had to go back to the co-op if we were going to prepare for an event in six weeks. I needed access to the jumps, space to gallop, a regulation dressage arena to practice our movements in. Briar Hill Farm was coming along, but slowly. Pete kept his upper-level horses off the farm right now, at a private stable in Ocala, where he was a partner with a sharp-eyed young trainer named Gomez Peña. He expected I would do the same.
Briar Hill Farm might be home, but it wasn’t a competitive-level training center for two professional riders.
This shouldn’t be so hard, I told myself. Get it together.
Fact: I had six short weeks to get myself and Mickey in good enough shape to run around a Training Level course at Sunshine State. Fact: it would be a low, easy return to riding for me, after six months out of the show ring. Fact: it would be a simple, restorative return to eventing for Mickey, after two months turned out to pasture. Fact: taking Mickey back to Alachua Eventing Co-op and riding him before I taught lessons each afternoon was the simple, logical way to get both of us back into condition.
Fact: I wasn’t ready.
And I didn’t know why.
“There’s Jack to consider,” I said finally. “It will be tough to ride Mickey over there. I can’t just leave him in a pack and play while I ride. Not in Florida. There are bugs, and it’s hot—”
“Jules,” Alex interrupted. “You have a nanny already. It’s time to use her.”
Just then, Jack turned his head from the crook of my arm and blinked up at me, blue eyes shining in the sunlight filtered through the trees. I knew I had about thirty seconds before he started to fuss, so I took them for myself, to smile down at him and imprint myself on his brain, as if I hadn’t been doing just that since the morning he was born.
But I lost those thirty seconds. The growl of a truck on the driveway announced Pete was back from his day’s riding in Ocala. Jack turned his head to the sound, and I forced a smile as I met my husband’s eyes through the windshield. Suddenly beside me, Gemma beamed, and I could tell she was already dying to scoop up Jack and send me off to work.
Foaling Season releases in ebook and paperback on July 26, 2022!
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Hello everyone! I am excited to share the first chapter of my upcoming novel, The Project Horse. This sweet, fun read set in the Florida horse country is coming to ebook and paperback on April 26, 2022.
The Project Horse was originally shared on Patreon and it was a major favorite with readers! It has been a pleasure to write, and I can’t wait to get it out to everyone. Here’s the deal:
Posey Malone is just trying to get her life together.
And to accomplish that, she’s heading home. With her horse trainer father gone to the great bookmaker in the sky, her love life in shambles, and her career as a copywriter low-income at best, she figures it’s best for everyone if she just shacks up with her mother for a while. Abandoning New York City for the wilds of north Florida won’t be easy, but Posey figures she can use some quiet time back in her old bedroom to save money, help her mom adjust to life without her dad, and get her head on straight again.
So when she pulls up in front of the family house and sees a big “For Sale” sign in the front yard, please forgive Posey if she says a few swear words.
Mom has a new place to work and live, and Posey has little choice but to tag along after her. Unfortunately, this means she’s thrust back into the thick of the Ocala rivalries which chased her away from home eight years ago. Namely: Adam Salazar. The son of her father’s ex-partner, Adam made her life a living hell as a teenager. One could almost say Adam broke up her entire family, if one wanted to blame someone. And Posey definitely wants to blame someone.
Determined to show Adam up, Posey takes on a failed racehorse as her project horse. She’ll prove she’s a better trainer than he is, and save some pride in the process. But when Adam takes Posey’s bet and starts training a project horse of his own, she finds herself spending more time than she anticipated with her arch-nemesis . . . and that the arrogant boy she remembers has been replaced by a handsome man who is determined to make amends.
A story about growing up, coming home, and finding love: The Project Horse will take you on a gallop through Florida’s horse country with plenty of friendship, laughter, and redemption along the way.
You can preorder The ProjectHorse and get it delivered to your ebook account on April 26th at the preorder price of $4.99 from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Smashwords, and other stores. Visit https://books2read.com/theprojecthorse
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The Project Horse is also coming to Kobo and Google Play, plus library apps like CloudLibrary, Overdrive, and Hoopla!
Plus, of course, super cute paperbacks to brighten up your bookshelf – and you can expect an audiobook later in 2022.
Meet Posey in the first chapter with this sneak peek!
The Project Horse
The windshield wipers have been working nonstop since South Carolina.
They’re making a truly obnoxious sound. Somewhere around the Florida/Georgia line, one of the wiper blades tore a little, and it’s been groaning against the glass with each upstroke ever since. It’s a sort of grinding rubber sound that makes me grit my teeth. Something I have to stop doing, incidentally, as my dentist has threatened me with a night guard.
My former dentist. I guess Dr. Singh is a good guy and all, but driving two thousand miles back to his office in Queens would be tough to manage every six months.
I’ll miss him, but I guess finding a new dentist is just one of the changes I have to accept in life.
And frankly, there are other changes which will hurt more. Apologies, Dr. Singh, but losing the perfect everything bagels from the deli down the street, and late-night slices from Angelo’s Pizza on the corner, and two a.m. gab sessions on the living room sofa with my roommate Carmen—those are the changes that are really going to leave a mark.
But it is what it is, as Carmen would say. One of the secrets to living a happy life in New York City is knowing when it’s time to fold and get up from the table.
I’m a few months late in that, actually. The house was winning, handily, before I realized that if I wanted to move back to Florida with enough money in my checking account for gas and Doritos, I had to stop putting it off.
So long, bagels. So long, pizza. So long, Carmen, and so many other things I have learned to love and hate and fear: like long subway rides on hot days just to savor the ice-cold air conditioning on the N train, and Dr. Singh’s warnings about a night guard if I couldn’t control my stress, and my half-formed dreams about a career and a life that was more than the two-bedroom apartment in Astoria where I’d landed seven years ago, a scared college grad with no real vision of the future.
Now I get to be a scared college grad with no real vision of the future seven years later. Score!
“You did the best with what you had,” I say aloud. I’ve been talking to myself a lot on this drive. It’s a doozy: there are twenty-four hours of interstate between New York City and Jacksonville, where I exited for the state highway that would lead me towards Ocala and my childhood home, and I’ve been alone with my thoughts for all of them.
Plenty of time to go over what went wrong: bad boyfriends, bad job choices, bad luck; and what went right: the best roommate a girl could ever ask for, an address in Astoria before it was cool, a freelance writing career that waited for me when I put my life on hold back in spring to deal with my dad’s unexpected passing.
Well, it sort of waited for me. I lost a couple of my best-paying clients and I was left relying the most on a singularly boring gig, writing content for an insurance company. They did have a division offering equine insurance, which I couldn’t help but find interesting. With my kind of background, anything horsey makes me stop and pay attention. New York City had the occasional equestrian moment to catch my eye: cops on horseback riding down a city street, movie studios filming a rider on horseback galloping down a random Queens avenue, a carriage horse eating a carrot from a tourist’s hand in Central Park.
But it was nothing like my hometown, of course. Ocala, Florida cheerfully bills itself of the Horse Capital of the World (hyperbole is welcomed in this town) and I grew up the horsey daughter of horsey parents, in a brick rancher on a street named Blue Ribbon Court.
And that’s where I’m heading now.
Not because of the equine insurance content writing—they don’t care where I’m typing from. But because it has been six months since my dad died, and in that six months, my mom’s voice has gotten smaller and her conversations shorter; while at the same time, my financial situation has gotten tighter and my relationship with my long-time boyfriend imploded. Because it was looking more and more like I hadn’t made it in the city, and if I couldn’t make it there, maybe I couldn’t make it anywhere.
That’s how that song goes, right?
A logging truck rushes towards me on the narrow, two-lane highway. My little Kia shivers as it roars past and leaves a slipstream of howling wind in its wake. The pine forest on either side of the road is dark and wet, and I feel like the trees are waiting for me to slip up and slide into their embrace.
“You’re losing it, Posey,” I tell myself, and grip the steering wheel a little tighter. “Just an hour to go.”
An hour feels like forever when you’ve been driving this long. That or time has ceased to exist. I can’t decide which.
When the road opens up to four lanes, and I see the old orange grove store coming up, I know it’s time for one last break. I pull the car into the pitted parking lot and get out slowly, stretching my tired arms in the drizzle. The air smells like wood smoke and orange blossoms and manure and fish guts.
Adam and I used to come to this shop when we were kids, right after he got his driver’s license. He thought the shellacked gator heads in the window were so funny; I thought they were gross. I still do. I look away from them and head inside. The bell chimes overhead. A woman, wrinkled and creased like a reused paper lunch bag, looks up from her phone and then down again.
The row of juice coolers is still next to the door, the plastic cases full of orange and grapefruit and tangerine juices in their many shades of sunshine. I liked to mix orange and tangerine; Adam liked ruby red grapefruit, sweet and bitter all at once. The juice used to come from around Ocala, from the groves of Marion County, but not in our time. The freezes knocked the orange business south long before we were born. The orange grove store is a relic, and it feels that way, like the 1960s settled down here and locked the doors.
Horses took the place of the citrus, and horses were why Adam and I lived here, why we were friends, why we’d known each other since—well, since forever.
God, I hope he’s not here anymore.
I walk past the juice without tasting it and pull a Cherry Coke from the fridge in the corner. The same Cherry Coke I could buy in the city.
The woman puts down her phone long enough to take my money. “Gross day,” she says, dropping coins into the register.
“Sure is,” I agree, the local twang already back on my tongue. “Seems cold for October, too.”
“You don’t like the weather now, wait ’til tomorrah,” she advises me, and I know it’s just an everyday saying, but it feels like a threat.
Tomorrow. Where will I be tomorrow?
Waking up in my own bed, at home.
It’s easy to picture my bedroom, because it hasn’t changed since I was twelve. A double bed covered by a striped pink and white duvet; a shelf of Breyer model horses above my desk; a framed shadowbox displaying my best champion and reserve champion ribbons from childhood horse shows resting atop my bookcase; a shiny blue racing whip leaning against the wall in one corner, its short leather “feathers” curling with age. All waiting for me, just a few more miles down this cracked and steaming highway.
It’s a weird room for a twenty-six-year-old, but none of this is ideal. I don’t mind climbing into that bed as a guest, but I can’t quite believe I’m going to do it as a resident, and what’s more, that my dad won’t be in the bedroom down the hall with my mother, or sitting in the living room watching horse racing from Australia well into the wee hours. That was always his self-prescribed cure for insomnia. Sometimes he didn’t go to bed at night at all. He came home from training hours, stripped and showered, and fell into bed, sleeping through the afternoon.
His schedule could make my mom crazy, but my dad was not the kind of guy you could reason with. He did his own thing, and he did it with a smile.
He got away with a lot, thanks to that smile. No one ever stayed angry with Paddy Malone, the nicest guy in horse racing.
I’d inherited his charming smile, but not the get-out-of-jail-free pass. To my dismay, I’d found the Malone smile isn’t a form of legal tender in New York City. Not like it is in Ocala.
Or was, I suppose. Who would take it now? Paddy Malone was gone. His old partnership with Rafe Salazar, the money in the operation, had been dissolved years before. While I was in New York, writing word salad for corporations, and dating unreasonable men, Paddy settled down to train a few horses on his own, fade into obscurity, have a heart attack, and die. Maybe, since then, the Malone heritage has expired, and I’m coming back to the town where my name meant something to find that I’m now a no one—a fate even worse than being back in the city, where I was never anyone.
I’m back in the driver’s seat and about to pull onto the highway when my phone trills. There’s nothing fancy like Bluetooth in this hard-luck sedan, so I have to put the car back into park and pick the phone up, like a sucker. “Hey, Carmen,” I say, trying to inject a little fake pep into my tone.
“Hey, bestie! Are you home yet? What’s it like? Have you seen any alligators?” Carmen’s full of pizazz and caffeine at this time of day. It’s five o’clock in the evening, so she’s on her last coffee break during her receptionist shift at a physical therapy office near New York-Presbyterian Hospital. This is the triple-espresso break, the one that sees her through the last hour of work and the subway ride home. It’s always high energy, often alarming.
“Weirdly enough, yes I have.” I don’t tell her the alligators I’ve seen so far are frozen in shellac for all eternity. “But I’m not home just yet. Another half-hour or so left.”
“Get the spare bedroom ready for me. I need a vacation already.”
“You just got home from Puerto Rico,” I point out. “You were gone the whole time I was packing up, remember? I assume to avoid helping me.”
“Oh yeah, because visiting family is such a vacation. All we did was sit around my cousins’ houses and eat. I gained like ten pounds. And it rained the whole entire time.” Carmen’s voice takes on a pout. “I shoulda moved to Florida too. Why didn’t you ask me to move with you? I’m hurt.”
Carmen would never survive in rural, landlocked Ocala. We’ve had this discussion before. “This isn’t Miami Beach, Carmen. And where you gonna find work in Ocala? Because I don’t see you mucking stalls, honey.”
“Oh, oy, because they got no doctor’s offices in Florida.” Carmen sighs extra gustily, just for me. “I can’t believe you gone, that’s all. Bestie, I need lots of reports, okay? Tell me everything. I cannot believe I’m going home tonight and there’s gonna be no one there. I’m gonna talk to the walls. I’m gonna have a seance and call up some spirits just so I have a friend!”
“Don’t have a seance. Remember what happened when Alfrida tried to talk to the ghost in her kitchen?”
“That was different. That was a poltergeist. And the whole kitchen didn’t burn down, only the curtains. Coulda been worse.”
“I’m just saying. No, I’m asking. Don’t anger the spirit realm. Or at least don’t do it alone.”
“Who’s gonna do it with me? Not Alfrida, I know that. And with you in Florida? That’s it for me and the great beyond, bestie.”
I don’t know what to say. For a moment, I just want to turn around, drive north. What’s another twenty-three hours on the road? When you’ve left behind everything you built in your adult life, including your very best friend, only to go back home and have to deal with all the garbage you left in order to escape?
The rain is pattering on the windshield, blurring the pine trees on the other side of the highway. It’s definitely the rain, and not tears in my eyes.
“I’m not mad at you,” Carmen says eventually. “I understand why you had to go home. Work, your mom, Darren…it all added up. I know, honey.”
I don’t want to think about Darren. Breaking up with him wasn’t a big reason I left New York. But breaking up with him was the big reason I’d realized I wasn’t made for New York. That I’d been faking it all along. I wasn’t a lifer. I was a visitor.
“And seriously, after your dad, I get it,” Carmen continues. I can picture her thinking through her words, gazing across the throbbing, pulsing Midtown traffic as she sips her latte. “I know it’s not about me. I would just like to make it about me. You know I’m always happier when I’m the center of everything, right?”
“You’re always the center of everything, Carmen.” I sniff. “No one would ever dare to take the spotlight off you.”
“I appreciate that.”
“It was just all—too much.” I don’t even know what I’m saying. But it doesn’t matter.
“I understand,” Carmen repeats, more firmly this time. And I have the sense that Carmen is maybe going to cry a little, just a little, but if she cries, I’m going to cry.
“I better go,” I say. “It’s going to get dark. It stays light past four o’clock here, by the way. Kinda fancy.”
“Call me soon, bestie,” Carmen says. “I mean it. I love you, girl.”
* * *
So I turn the windshield wipers back on, listen to that awful grinding sound of torn rubber being tugged across glass, and set off on the last twenty miles of my two-thousand mile trip.
And wouldn’t you know, it stops raining?
As I drive through the northern reaches of Ocala, the western sky clears and a sunset made of molten gold stretches itself along the horizon. The light gilds everything it touches: old mobile homes, pine bark darkened with rainwater, black-board fences, horses grazing on rolling pastures. Occasionally, the thin white curves of training track railings—because this is horse country, but more than that, it is Thoroughbred racehorse country. Kentucky gets the glory and the celebrity-studded first Saturday in May, but sunny Florida is the winter nursery of the biggest racing stables in the business, and a fleet of much, much smaller year-round outfits, as well. From stables of a hundred horses to only one, these smaller training operations are like the one my parents ran, the ones I grew up a part of, the ones I expected to work in…before I realized I couldn’t stay here another second.
Well, here I am, not at all ready for round two.
Dusk is falling as I pull into a small court of single-family houses. Blue Ribbon Estates used to be way out in the countryside, but I’ve passed two shiny new subdivisions on the way here. It’s disorienting, remembering farms, but seeing cookie-cutter houses in their places. Someone probably felt the same way thirty years ago when these brick ranchers went up on a discarded pasture. I guess we’re all disappointments, as far as generations go.
I park the Kia under a street light in front of the house, and marvel for a moment at the way my childhood home simply doesn’t change. Same lace curtains in the bay window. Same beige blinds in the upstairs bedrooms. Same boring square of green sod in the front yard—wait.
I get out of the car and shut the door with trembling fingers. Slowly, slowly, I walk over to the sign on the lawn.
And the cap on top: UNDER CONTRACT.
I press my fingers to my brow, an instant headache flaring behind my eyes. This can’t be happening. Mom would have told me, she would have said—I talked to her yesterday, for heaven’s sake!
The front door opens, a rectangle of yellow light. I see my mom as a silhouette, a small woman in jeans and a sweatshirt.
“Honey!” my mom calls. “You’re here! I have the best news!”
* * *
“How did this happen so quickly?” I’m sitting at the kitchen table, which is mostly covered with cardboard boxes. My mom has been packing all day, apparently.
While I was driving home, she was putting everything in the house into boxes marked KEEP or GIVE.
It’s a lot to take in.
Mom puts a mug of tea in front of me. “Baby girl, you don’t even want to know what this house is worth. Land values in Ocala have quadrupled. I am not joking when I say the sign went up yesterday morning and the contract sign went on it today. I didn’t even have to give a single showing. We had six offers over asking price by five o’clock yesterday.”
I take an experimental sip of tea while I try to process all of this information. It’s terrible, of course—my mom makes awful, stringent, horrendous tea with store-brand teabags and some kind of plant-alcohol sweetener which makes me crave actual sugar like a drug addict—but it gives me something to do with my hands besides wave them around my head, having a total freak-out. And something to do with my lips and tongue besides using them to shriek, “How can you just sell the house like this? We were supposed to start over together!”
I was supposed to start over with her.
Had I not been clear to her, before, when I said I needed this?
My mom is drinking a low-calorie beer. She sets the sweating bottle on the table without regard for rings left on the wood, so I guess the placemats and coasters are packed away. Or maybe there are no rules anymore. “Anyway, honey, you can stay with me as long as you want. I got a job with housing.”
“You did? A job? Doing what, the books?” Mom was the business manager for Malone Training, and Malone-Salazar Racing Stables before that. She could probably get a management job from any breeder or trainer in town just by asking.
“Oh, no. Feeding outside horses.”
“Seriously? Like, broodmares and stuff? You’re going to be one of those people who just drive around with a golf cart full of feed?”
“I am,” Mom says with satisfaction. “I think it’ll be fun. I was more hands-on with the horses after it was just your father and me. I don’t want to sit in a stuffy office all day.”
I can understand that.
“It’s part-time, just feeding breakfast and dinner, checking to make sure everyone is alive and in one piece, that kind of thing. But, it comes with a two-bedroom house. Plenty of room for the two of us.” She tapes up a box with sure fingers. “You could probably get a job there, too, if you want one.”
“A horse job?”
“Why not? You said you’re short of writing work. You know how to handle horses. And there’s plenty to be done. It’s October, so the long yearlings are all coming in to get started under saddle, and the Kentucky farms are sending down their babies to start too—they need tons of riders.”
“I know the Ocala calendar,” I interrupt. “But I quit riding because I wasn’t any good at it.”
My mom looks down at the roll of packing tape in her hands. “You were plenty good at riding,” she says quietly.
“Sure, I was. So good that Dad took me off all our best horses and Adam Salazar told me his father thought I was a danger on the track.”
“Posey, you’re not still hanging on to that!”
I nearly overturn my tea mug. “Hanging on to that? Mom, I was getting up at four thirty every morning to ride our horses before school and then I was fired. You were there!”
“It wasn’t that you were a bad rider,” Mom says, looking everywhere but at me. “There were other reasons they took you off the horses.”
“Like what? Like Adam suddenly deciding he hated me? Rafe couldn’t handle his little heir getting hurt by a girl outriding him in the morning? I can’t believe we’re talking about this, by the way. My primary goal in giving this damned business up was never, ever having to discuss any of this, ever.”
“So let’s not talk about it,” Mom retorts spiritedly. “Let’s talk about something else. How about those Yankees, huh?”
“I don’t know anything about the Yankees,” I sigh. “Where is this job, anyway? Where are we going to live?” I’m hoping for one of the big farms, like Clover Meadows or Silverleaf, where I can disappear into a thousand acres of rolling pastures and figure out my life quietly, on my own.
“Oh, it’s right around the corner,” Mom says. She can’t help but look excited, and for a moment I can forget my pique. My mom is a very young sixty-two, with a golden tan and crinkling lines around her eyes and mouth. She’s spent her entire life outdoors in the Florida sun, and she looks unfairly beautiful despite her serious lack of SPF for most of it.
“Whose place? Is Lucky Seven still in business?” I take a sip of tea, trying to think of some of the other big farms near Blue Ribbon Court.
“They are, but not them. It’s actually—” She gives me a lopsided grin. “It’s Salazar Farm, Posey.”
I choke on my tea.
“Oh, honey.” All of my spluttering earns me a sympathetic pat on the arm. “I’m sure Adam Salazar has forgotten all about your little spat.”
“Spat?” I stare at her. She knows she’s underplaying this situation by a factor of ten. Or a hundred. “Try lifelong feud.”
“You were just kids!”
“We were seventeen, Mom. We were practically adults. And that little spat ended up with me losing my job and going to New York City.”
“Where you lived a great and exciting life,” Mom suggests. “Found a career you love?”
I roll my eyes at that.
“Lots of young women would love to spend their twenties in the city,” she says. “I think you’re just a little worked up right now.”
“I’m worked up because I haven’t slept in two days and you just told me we are moving to the Salazar place and that you think I should work there. Did you really think they’d hire me to ride? After what went down?”
“It’s water under the bridge,” Mom says, but she looks a little troubled, a line forming between her eyes. “Adam was very eager to offer me this job and house when I said I might be looking.”
“Wait. Adam offered it?”
“He’s running the place for his dad.”
“Jesus.” It just gets worse and worse. “I can’t talk about this anymore. I need a nap.”
“I’ll heat something up once I’ve cleared the table, and then you can go to bed,” Mom says. She eyeballs the large vase left on the table, a crystal leviathan that’s been part of the house since I was a small girl. “Do you want that vase?”
“Me? I don’t have anywhere to put it.” It’s the kind of vase which demands a shelf of its own, possibly a carefully positioned light, and daily dusting.
“Goodwill pile, then,” she says briskly, and sweeps the vase from the table. I watch it leave the room in her hands, finally shocked speechless. But by the time she comes back, I’ve recovered myself enough to bring up the real issue here.
“Mom? Adam Salazar will not have forgotten our fight.”
“Oh, and how do you know that?” Exasperation enters her tone. “You don’t have any idea what Adam Salazar is thinking about.”
“I know because I didn’t forget!”
She eyes me speculatively, as if trying to determine how much bad news I can handle in one evening. “Well, I didn’t want to say it, but Adam has a few more things on his plate than you ever did. I wouldn’t assume he’s still mulling over arguments from seven years ago, just because you are.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I snap, even though I know what it means.
Adam Salazar’s somehow more of an adult than me. Because he stayed. Because he lived up to his family legacy.
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.
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.
If you love horses and the beach and stories about strong women finding themselves, have I got a great read for you! Sea Horse Ranch is coming to ebook and paperback on January 18th, 2022. And you’re going to love it.
Katie LeBlanc never expected to find herself hitchhiking away from Key West after a gig gone wrong. Booed offstage and kicked out of the band she’s been traveling with for the past year, she figures she has to start over with everything, and she doesn’t even know where to start.
But when a kind woman offers her a ride and a safe place to stay for the night, Katie realizes her adventures are beginning already.
A quiet island paradise, eccentric locals, a herd of mustangs, a prodigal son with a mountain-man beard and arresting eyes: what is this enchanted place? And can she stay forever please?
As Katie becomes accustomed to island life, she realizes she’d do anything to keep this place safe from harm. And it’s a good thing, too. Because it turns out Sea Horse Ranch is in need of saving — and Katie’s old contacts in the music industry might hold the key to keeping her new home from being destroyed forever.
With beautiful scenery, fun characters, and just enough romance, Sea Horse Ranch is destined to become your new favorite reading escape!
Read Chapters One & Two Below!
Find Sea Horse Ranch at all major ebook and paperback retailers beginning January 18th, 2022.
I put up my thumb as another truck passed, but this time it just felt like habit. The hot breath of exhaust it left behind only added to my general sticky grossness. I needed a twenty-five-minute shower and an entire bottle of body wash.
But the prospect of finding a place to bathe and rest was feeling increasingly unlikely.
How had I found myself walking up the side of a two-lane highway deep in the Florida Keys? Oh, the same way dreamy girls always got into this kind of mess.
Chasing a dream and a hot guy.
“This is always how it was going to end,” I muttered to myself, watching my toes in my hot pink flip-flops as I walked carefully, one step after another, into the hard-packed white sand along the side of U.S. 1. “There was never any other outcome in play. You run away from home, you sing in a band, you sleep with the singer, and you get kicked out. At the literal end of the continent. Typical Katie.”
Yeah, somewhere deep inside, I’d probably known. Of course, it would all end in tears and hitchhiking my way towards home. The only unknown had been where it would end.
Wasn’t it just my luck that fateful spot would be at Mile Marker 0?
* * *
Another pickup truck roared past, this one hauling a small flat-bottomed boat. It bounced along on a trailer with squeaky shocks. They sure loved their boats and pickups down here in the Florida Keys. I liked them, too. Keys culture reminded me a lot of home, back up in the soggy saltwater marshes along the Gulf Coast. Sure, up in Louisiana we spiced our shrimp with Cajun seasoning and down here it came blackened with Jamaican jerk spices, but the general attitude towards life was the same: you got up, you put on your tank top and your flip-flops, and then you fished as much as was humanly possible. Finish off the day with a six-pack or three, depending on your tolerance, and sleep it all off before another big day tomorrow.
That leisurely lifestyle was the only one I’d ever known before I took off with The Bombers. It was how my mom and dad lived, and my brothers, and my uncles and my aunts and my cousins, and everyone else I knew back in St. Bart Bay. It was how I was supposed to live. So, it had come as quite the surprise to the whole lot of them when I’d taken off for New Orleans to sing back-up with some strangers I’d met online.
Well, my mom called them strangers. I’d called them friends.
Kind of sucked that she’d been right. That’s the thing about moms, though, isn’t it? You never want them to be right. But it seems like they usually are. At least, my mom’s that way. Your mileage may vary.
The road quieted for a few minutes, no traffic in sight. It was almost calming: this empty strip of pavement marching through the sea. Water to my right, water to my left. On the right was a bright stretch of turquoise water, its gentle swells lapping against a short but serviceable white-sand beach, where a few spunky coconut palms were waving their fronds in the sea breeze. Beyond the shallow water, the Florida Straits stretched out to the horizon. No land until Cuba.
To the left, the water was deep blue, slapping gently against a grass-choked shore. Mangrove islands popped up across narrow channels, small hummocks of brush dotted with white birds. I understood water like that: not swamp, but not open sea, either. A waterlogged landscape, with islands which were more the tangled roots of trees than dry sand.
And running right up the middle: the sun-faded pavement of U.S. 1, the Overseas Highway. I stood along the roadside and gazed up the road’s center line, the two colors of sea blinking on either side of me. They merged again in the distance, the shocking brightness of Caribbean turquoise swallowed up by the darker water. But I felt like I’d seen their secrets. I knew they had different beginnings, those two seas.
A rumble from behind me signaled oncoming traffic. I put out my thumb reflexively, not bothering to look over my shoulder. They weren’t going to stop. No one stopped. Not the tourists in their white rental cars, heading back to Miami so they could fly home to parts north and forget their Floridays, the corresponding Jimmy Buffett playlist they’d played on repeat all holiday disappearing forever. Not the fishermen in their pickups. Not the snowbirds in their Buicks and their Cadillacs, zipping between the islands to buy groceries and pick up prescriptions.
The truck went by, a boatless model this time, although it had a big hitch on the back, and a diving flag decal on the rear window—those two were common markers of Monroe County truckdom. I was still studying the dents in the back bumper when the brake lights flashed on, and the truck pulled over onto the narrow, sandy shoulder.
Uh-oh, I thought. I got something on the line.
Hope it doesn’t have teeth.
* * *
A woman unfolded herself from the truck and walked back towards me. She looked like a typical Conch, just aging away in the sun. A turquoise tank top set off her dark tan and freckled chest, and her cut-off khaki shorts had seen their share of fish guts and motor oil, judging by the stains. She was wearing a sturdy pair of hiking sandals. In the Conch Republic, flip-flops were not required, but socks and shoes were never the correct choice. Her gray and brown hair was drawn back into a ponytail, and the strands bulged in protest, humidity fluffing it into a wild bush.
She looked kind of like my mom.
She looked the way I figured I’d look in thirty years, give or take a decade of hard living.
She also had kind, pale blue eyes which fastened on me as she stopped a short distance away. A respectful distance. She tipped her head. “You crazy, girl?”
I loosened the strap of my backpack and let it fall to the ground, rubbing at my sore shoulder. Life had been easier when both straps were working. “No, just dumb,” I said ruefully.
She chuckled. “Where you headed?”
“North,” I said simply. That was usually enough. A direction was all anyone offering a ride needed to know, in my opinion. And I’d been hitching since I was fifteen, which was a solid eleven years, thanks for asking, so I had a pretty informed opinion on the subject.
But the saltwater in her veins wasn’t cold enough to just let me off the hook with a simple cardinal direction. “North where?”
“By northeast, judging by the road ahead,” I joked, pointing up U.S. 1. The highway didn’t actually turn north until it hit the mainland—or Key Largo, which a lot of the Lower Keys folks seemed to think was the mainland.
She wasn’t having it. “Honey, I’m trying to find out if you’ve got a problem you need help with.”
The word problem was gently stressed.
She meant a man.
“He’s not my problem anymore.” I smiled gamely, to let her know it was fine. My heart wasn’t ripped out or anything. Just stomped on a little. It was my pride that needed worrying about. “You heard of the Saltwater and Sunsets Music Festival? Over the weekend down in Key West?”
She nodded. “Sure. Another big tourist weekend in Key West. They have a way of drawing all the drivers right past the other islands.”
She sounded almost…bitter? As if she wanted some of the tourists to stay. Well, that wasn’t the normal reaction. Now I was curious. Curious enough to hitch my bag back over my shoulder and keep talking. “I was down for that, performing. Only now I’m not in the band anymore. So I need a way home. Think you could just get me a few more miles up the road? I can camp on the beach if I don’t find my way all the way to Miami.”
I didn’t really know what I’d do in Miami. Maybe give up, call my mom, beg for a plane ticket home. I’d rather do almost anything else. Clean toilets. Rake seaweed. Pick up garbage. Whatever it took to avoid groveling. I was prepared for something good to happen, just in case the universe wanted to go off-script for an afternoon.
“Well, if you want to keep going north, sure,” the woman agreed. She looked me over again, from my sandals to my straw hat. “Or if you want to stop for a night or two and get your head back on straight, you can stay at the ranch. I find folks always feel good after they’ve spent some time talking to my horses.”
The word ranch was unexpected. I would have been less surprised if she’d suggested I stay overnight in her hot-air balloon. I looked from side to side: the dark water of the bay, the turquoise of the strait. Then back and forth, up and down this narrow road, running through the narrow chunk of coral and coquina that passed for dry land in this sunken part of the world. Still didn’t make sense. I asked, politely as I could, “The ranch?”
And that was what did it: the faded blue in her eyes positively sparkling, the smile on her face as warm and welcoming as if I’d found out the secret password. “Yes, ma’am. I run Sea Horse Ranch,” she announced. “Name’s Crystal Linney.” She took a few steps closer and held out a calloused, sun-dotted hand. I took it.
“Katie LeBlanc,” I replied, feeling the steely strength in her hand. “I’m a retired singer.”
“Retired!” She looked me up and down with surprise. “Honey, you look pretty young for retirement.”
“Well, it isn’t by choice,” I said, grinning to take the sting out. “But you know how it is. Tough world out there.”
“It sure is,” Crystal Linney agreed. “It sure is. That’s why I try to avoid it, best as I can.”
Crystal took back her hand, her expression still bemused. “I don’t know, though, retired? You look a little young to be using the r word.”
I spread my hands innocently. “Sometimes you get forced out, y’know? I’m just trying to keep a positive outlook on life. Everyone wants to be retired, right?”
Crystal grinned and beckoned me to follow her as a semi-trailer blew past, scattering gravel. “Come on. Let’s get out of the shoulder before one of us ends up roadkill.”
Well, I’d made my choice. And while I usually liked to ride in the back of a pickup—with hitching, quick getaways can be the name of the game—I gamely climbed up into the passenger side of Crystal’s truck. It was an old Chevy with a bench seat covered by a brightly colored Navajo blanket, a lot of sand and grass clippings on the rubber floor mats, and a pile of mail in the middle.
“Don’t mind the mess,” Crystal advised, unembarrassed. “I pick up the mail in town once a week and forget it.”
“Where’s town?” I put my backpack at my feet. A little grass wouldn’t hurt it, not after the places that bag had already gone with me. “Key West?”
“You got it. Even though I live closer to Big Pine.”
I remembered Big Pine Key from the drive south. I’d wanted to creep into the back streets behind U.S. 1, maybe find some of those elusive Key Deer that people talked so much about. But I didn’t know if the locals would welcome some hitchhiker wandering their quiet neighborhoods. Back in St. Bart Bay, a vagrant got told which road to take on their way out of town, and they were watched until they were a tiny dot in the distance.
“And where’s the…the ranch?” I asked, finding a hard time getting my mind around using that word out here. Crystal was pulling back onto U.S. 1, and a long bridge loomed ahead, connecting this little piece of sand with the next little piece of sand. Water spread all around us, sparkling in the southern sun. Where could there be a ranch out here?
“It’s just a few miles up this way, then over a couple little bridges on the bay side.” Crystal smiled to herself. “I call it Sea Horse Ranch. But we’re actually on a little island called Hell and Dammit Cay.”
“You’re on what?”
“Hell and Dammit,” she repeated, confirming I hadn’t heard her wrong. “Funny, right? Some old cuss named it that because he kept wrecking his shrimp boat on a reef just offshore. Then some government fellas came around when they was laying out the post office codes or something, and they asked for the name, wrote it down, and that’s what we got. Hell and Dammit Cay. That’s cay like key, by the way. Spelled C-A-Y but not pronounced that way. Don’t get it wrong, or you’ll sound like a tourist.”
I was almost afraid to ask Crystal anything else. So much to take in. A ranch. On an island named by an angry, mildly profane fisherman. And not for nothing, but apparently I’d been pronouncing the word cay wrong for like, a really long time. What else would I get wrong if I opened my mouth?
I decided I’d better just settle down and enjoy the view.
Crystal seemed fine with my silence. She pointed out places of interest as we passed them. “That there’s Half-Moon Beach. Roy Ellis caught a shark off that pier once that was filled with gold jewelry. No one ever explained how a shark could eat that much jewelry.” She chuckled to herself, then pointed at a low, brown building with several trucks parked in the sandy lot out front. “That’s the Slutty Mermaid Saloon. It doesn’t have a sign. That’s to keep the tourists away. Plus, if they put up a sign with that name, the morality police would probably go nuts. We got all types down here. Puritans and prostitutes. And look there—that’s the palm tree that my neighbor Marchant Davis tied up to when Hurricane Betty raised the water so fast, he was carried out to sea while he was still taking the sails down off his boat.”
I had to admit of all that crazy, the tree thing really got me. The palm tree was all by itself on a mound of sand at least twenty feet above the water. That palm tree was probably the highest point in the Florida Keys. I could see it surviving a storm surge, its fronds fluttering gamely, but, still, I was skeptical that someone could’ve tied their sailboat that high above solid ground. “Oh, now, that can’t be true.”
“I saw it with my own eyes, when I rowed over to check on poor old Marchant before the water went down,” Crystal informed me. “And there’s a photo of it hanging behind the bar of the Slutty Mermaid. Everything here was under water.”
“What about the ranch? Wasn’t it underwater?”
For a moment, Crystal’s easy-going expression slipped. “Well, the houses out there have stilts,” she said. “And we didn’t have any horses back then. Just goats. We took the goats with us up into the house and they were fine. Marchant replaced my floors, though. That floor wasn’t fine, believe me. I got rid of the blame things after that. Never again, I said.” She rested an elbow on the truck door and leaned her cheek on her hand, looking thoughtful. “We don’t get many storm surges that cover the islands, though.”
Then and there, I resolved I wouldn’t bring up hurricanes again. The big storms were a constant threat during the long, sultry summers in St. Bart Bay, too. We mostly dealt with them by building dikes and putting houses on stilts, but only one of those options would work out in the Keys, and I didn’t think horses would appreciate climbing up the stairs of a barn on stilts. They’d have to evacuate the horses to higher ground if a storm surge was forecast. Couldn’t be easy trying to get out of here in a normal car, with only one road for all these islands. It would be worse with a trailer full of horses, I was sure.
Just a few dozen feet past the Slutty Mermaid, Crystal turned down a narrow road paved only in sand and some kind of pulverized stone, shimmering white in the sunlight. I’d noticed these white roads in other parts of Florida; someone at a gas station outside Daytona Beach had told me it was likely limestone rock or crushed coquina, which was a crumbling blend of fossilized shells and prehistoric sands. It had a washboard surface in a few places, and deep pools of milky colored rainwater in the occasional pothole.
We were on a wide island, no trace of the bay on either side of the road, but instead there were deep, narrow ditches lining either side. The black water in their depths hinted at disappearing bodies and creatures of unusual size. This was something else I’d noticed about Florida: it wasn’t all palm trees and bikinis at all. Driving south in the band’s van, taking old highways to avoid expensive toll roads, I looked out at those ditches and vast swamps and figured those, more than anything else, were what gave Florida its endless potential for crazy crime. Things could just vanish in Florida.
I could vanish, if I kept on hitch-hiking here. Or if Crystal turned out to be a murderer. Anything was possible. But I pushed that thought out of my head.
Palms and occasional stands of bamboos grew thick behind the ditches. Little driveways humped over the moats from time to time, and rusting mailboxes proved not everyone had to haul down to Key West to get their catalogs and bills. I tried to peer down the driveways, but mostly just saw flashes of tantalizing color through the thick foliage.
“The houses here are pretty bright,” I observed, after seeing a coral-pink house through a quick break in the brush.
“Folks like to go their own way here,” Crystal said. “You move out onto these islands, no homeowner’s association is telling you what color to paint your house. Now, look here, this is the first bridge.”
Only one lane wide, and just about twelve feet long, the little concrete bridge made a disconcerting hum when the truck passed over it. Crystal laughed at my expression. “It’s a solid bridge, I swear. We call it the Humming Bridge.” I could hear the capital letters in her voice. “When it stops making that noise, that’s when we got trouble. Means something’s shifted and we gotta get a county engineer to come look.”
“What causes the humming?”
“Something about the rocks on either side, Marchant says.”
“The guy with the boat.”
“Well, we all have boats. But yeah, the hurricane boat. That’s Marchant. He has the place across the road from me. Old friend of mine. The best.” Crystal smiled to herself.
The island we were on now was even more intensely jungly than the last one, with only a few houses visible through thickets of palms and thickly leaved vines. I caught glimpses of coquina walls, an occasional boat resting quietly at a short pier. They didn’t even seem to be bobbing on the glassy waters. “So, which island is this?” I asked.
“This is Little Bucket Key. With a k, this time.”
“Why are some spelled like key and some like cay?” I pronounced ‘cay’ the wrong way on purpose this time.
“Depends on who wrote it down first,” Crystal explained. “Lotta the early folks here didn’t really know much spelling. At least, that’s what I’ve been told.”
We passed a mailbox with a red bucket turned over atop the post. “And that’s the little bucket,” Crystal said, and I didn’t even question it.
This was the Keys. Nothing was too weird to be true.
“Here’s the last bridge,” she said, pointing ahead. Also single-lane, but somewhat longer, the bridge to Hell and Dammit Cay sat low over the blue-green channel it crossed. It wouldn’t take much of a flood to cover that bridge, I thought. No wonder Marchant Davis tried to float away from the hurricane on his boat.
This bridge didn’t hum. But it did seem to tremble a bit. Crystal said nothing about the gentle wobble, and I decided not to bring it up. The water was shallow when you came right down to it.
“And here’s Hell and Dammit,” she said proudly as the truck’s tires connected with sand again and I permitted my clenched fists to relax. “A real hidden gem, we call it.” She braked to give me a moment to take it in.
I looked around. The island was small, and far more cleared out than Little Bucket Key. I could see the far shore ahead of us, less than a half-mile away, though the road ended well before that. Scruffy grass covered the ground between the road’s end and the rocky shore. The island seemed to be divided into quadrants, and four stilted houses rose from along the waterside. They’d been built to be identical, but I could tell their owners’ distinct personalities had altered them over the years.
There were some good plantings of tropical hardwood trees and pretty flowering hedges along the road, plus some clusters of plain-Jane Sabal palms, like the ones that grew up in St. Bart Bay. If there were horses, or a ranch, I couldn’t see them. I guessed the thick foliage along the roadside was blocking the view.
Closer to the bridge we’d just crossed, the shorelines on either side ran away from the road with brief, tan-colored beaches. Tall white egrets and stilt-legged sandpipers stalked the sands. From a nearby rock, a green iguana regarded me leisurely. I blinked at it for a moment. It was the largest lizard I’d ever seen: at least six feet long, from horny nose to black-tipped tail.
Crystal chuckled and pointed over her steering wheel. “So just ahead and to the right, behind those banyan trees, is where my fencing begins. The yellow house you can see there is mine. And on the left, in that blue house, is where Marchant lives, and then just beyond that, in the pink house, that’s Stacy. You’ll love Stacy,” Crystal added comfortably, as if I was coming for an extended stay.
“Who lives in the fourth house?” I asked. “The sorta gray one?”
“No one,” Crystal said. “That was my dad’s house. It’s falling apart inside. Dunno when we’ll ever have enough money to fix it.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.”
Crystal shrugged. “We got enough for us,” she said.
Then the truck moved past the trees and showed me the full, startling expanse of Sea Horse Ranch, and I forgot about the abandoned house.
Ready to find out more?
Find Sea Horse Ranch at all major ebook and paperback retailers beginning January 18th, 2022.
I’m excited to share the first three chapters of my upcoming holiday-themed novel, Christmas at Catoctin Creek, here at my site!
This fourth book in the Catoctin Creek series was supposed to be a novella, but as I wrote, the story let me know there was a lot more going on than the initial 35,000 words I’d planned for. So it’s now a full length novel, about the same length or a little longer than Springtime, the preceding book in the series. Pretty fun, right?
In this novel, all six of the former heroes and heroines of the first three Catoctin Creek novels return — plus some fun new arrivals.
When Rosemary is volunteered by a neighbor to take on twelve horses left behind by an elderly farmer’s death, she turns to Nadine and Nikki for help figuring out to pay and house the new horses. Nadine, now barn manager at the Long Pond girls’ school, has been looking for a way to get some of the misfit students from the school involved in horses. She sees an opportunity, but along with Nikki, all three women decide to think bigger: they’re going to bring back the Catoctin Creek Christmas Carnival, and run it as a fundraiser for Rosemary’s equine sanctuary.
But that’s not the only drama in town. A missing hiker has been bringing reporters to their town, among them, Kelly O’Connell of Arlington. Kelly came to Catoctin Creek to find answers about the missing hiker — a woman she has a strange personal connection with. She immediately falls for the small-town warmth of Catoctin Creek, a place where she wishes she could remake herself — if only she were that kind of person. Kelly knows she’s just going to be in and out once she’s found the missing woman.
If William lets her go. William Cunningham, the town’s favorite black sheep, is back from his annual wanderings out west. When he meets Kelly, he knows she’s in town for more than a live shot on the evening newscast — this woman is looking for answers, and she seems to think he’s up to something. William decides to steer clear of Kelly…but sometimes, trouble seeks a person out whether they want it or not…