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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