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 and that the arrogant boy she remembers has been replaced by a handsome man who is determined to make amends.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 Project Horse 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
OR you can preorder and receive the book files for your favorite ereading app/device from my Author Direct Store at Payhip for the special price of $3.99, and get it a day early, on April 25! Visit https://payhip.com/b/f4dwL
This is a preorder special, regular price is $5.99!
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.
Me, on the other hand?
I’m the one who gave up and left.