Merry Christmas / Meri Kirihimete / Happy Holidays!
I posted on Facebook yesterday that I would have a Christmas surprise…well as usual, life got into the way a little bit and I spent time with whanau (family). I’m also off to Pony Club Camp tomorrow for a week, and I haven’t even *started* packing.
But I do love and appreciate my readers, and I hate to break promises so here’s a little bit more of a sneak peek into Dream Once More, book #3 in the Dare to Dream series. Which I am planning to release for Christmas 2016! There’s more, but I haven’t had time to finish it so I will try and get it online next week, after camp.
In the meantime, enjoy, and thanks SO MUCH for your loyal readership this year x
DARE TO DREAM #3
DREAM ONCE MORE
Dawn was breaking, sending shimmers of golden light across the hills and through the wavering branches of winter-sparse trees. The world was yawning, stretching, coming awake. A building chorus of native birds heralded the promise of a new day, and the dusky morning sky hinted at the possibility of blue. At the top of a hill, in a paddock that lay close enough to the ocean that the smell of salt lingered in the air, a pinto pony was dozing. His eyes were half-closed and his head low as he stood peacefully, resting a hind leg. Another pony lay nearby, flat on his side and fast asleep, his round dapple grey belly flecked with dried mud. Sparrows hopped across the soggy ground between the pair, seeking out worms raised by last night’s heavy rain, which still dripped in gathering droplets from overhead branches and surrounding wire fences.
Then the call came from the gate at the bottom of the hill, and the ponies woke. The dapple grey raised his head halfway up, looked vaguely towards the gate, then lay back down, clearly preferring to lie-in. But the pinto pony with the splash of white on his nose and the lightning-bolt shaped scar between his eyes stood suddenly alert, and he whinnied a warm welcome to the teenage girl who was striding towards him across the grass, then began to make his way down the hill to meet her.
Marley’s paddock boots were battered and cracked, and the short walk from the house to the hill paddock had already left her with wet feet. She hadn’t bothered putting socks on – what was the point, when they’d only have to be wrung out and rewashed when she went back inside? She’d built up callouses to deal with the insistent rubbing of her little toes against the edges of the ill-fitting boots, and she didn’t notice any of the discomfort, anyway. She only had eyes for the pinto pony as he picked his way down the steep slope, broke into a rhythmic trot when he reached the bottom, then halted neatly in front of her with his ears pricked, Good morning written as clearly in his expression as if he’d said it out loud.
She smiled. “Morning, Cruise.”
The pinto pony butted Marley with his nose, and she gave him a chunk of carrot to crunch on before wrapping her arms around his neck and leaning her cheek against his thick coat, closing her eyes and breathing in his warm scent. The events that had first brought them together, then torn them apart, and then ultimately – and miraculously, Marley still felt – seen them reunited all lay behind her in a haze. She had her pony back, and every morning on which she could scramble out of bed and go straight to the paddock to give him a hug was one to be savoured.
Cruise licked his lips, delicately snuffling at the pockets of Marley’s jeans as her arms stayed fixed around his solid neck. As dedicated to Marley as she was to him, the pony was always pleased to see her, always whinnied out a greeting whenever he spotted her anywhere on the farm. He never missed an opportunity to remind her of his presence, a habit which had caused her considerable agony only a few months ago when he’d been at shows with his new owner. Losing her pony had been hard enough, but to have him call out to her whenever she walked past had been heart-wrenching, especially as she’d rarely been able to bring herself to stop and talk to him, scarred by the knowledge that he was no longer hers. But those days were behind them now, because Cruise hers once more, and hers forever. And this time, when the talented pony went out competing again, Marley would be the one loading him onto her truck. She would be the one to ride him, feed him and muck him out every day; she would be the one grooming him and saddling him and screwing in his studs, warming him up and cooling him down, hosing him off, wrapping his legs and rugging him up; lying on her stomach on the warm, dry grass and watching him graze peacefully nearby at the end of a long, exhilarating show day. She couldn’t wait – but she would have to. The show season was over, and months of cold, wet weather lay ahead as winter settled in across New Zealand.
“Why does the season have to be so far away?” Marley mumbled into Cruise’s thickening coat, still slightly damp from the night before. “Months of this. Months and months of rain and mud and not getting to ride you.” She stepped back and looked her pony in the eye, and he reached out and licked her hands eagerly, searching out more treats. “Greedy,” she told him affectionately, then scooped another piece of carrot from her pocket and fed it to him, loving the feel of his whiskery lips against her palm.
The offseason was always particularly trying for Marley. With shorter, darker days, a long stretch of several months without so much as a single public holiday to break up the tedium of school, and the incessant rain that turned everything to mud, it was, in her opinion, the absolute worst time of year. The competition ponies were turned out for eight long weeks and left almost entirely to their own devices, other than being checked on daily and fed extra rations of hay. Their holidays came unmolested by halters and brushes and brought them out the other side of the winter months looking like shaggy bush ponies. They grew out their coats, manes and tails were left to become straggly and dreadlocked, wispy beards grew under their chins and tufts of hair emerged from their ears. Bridle paths disappeared, shaved tails grew out into bristly bottlebrushes, and hairy fetlocks abounded. Marley ran her hands down Cruise’s white legs, checking for any heat, swelling, cuts or scabs. Mud fever was always a concern at this time of the year, and although most of their land was on sand that drained well, any of their ponies with pale skin under white legs or socks were kept in the driest paddocks to lessen the risk of infection on their sensitive skin. Cruise turned his head and watched Marley as she made her careful inspection of his well-being, patiently waiting as she checked him over and declared him to be injury-free.
Marley looked up the hill at Seattle, who was still lying on his side and ignoring her presence.
“Sea!” she yelled. “Are you going to make me come up there?” The pony lifted his head a mere fraction and gazed down at her idly. “No carrots for you if you do,” she warned him. Seattle flickered an ear back and forth, then resumed his slumbering position, apparently resigned to a carrot-less fate.
“Lazybones,” Marley muttered, beginning her march up the hill to check on him, because God knew that if she didn’t do it, he’d turn out to have some kind of gaping leg wound that required urgent attention. He wasn’t really a lazy pony; not when she was on his back and there was a jump in front of him, anyway. Then he was transformed into a bouncing ball of enthusiasm, flinging himself over the jumps with room to spare, and was just as likely to use up any excess energy in attempts to buck her off, if the moment inspired him. But if ever given the option to be ridden or left alone, he would always choose the latter, due to his deep suspicion of hard work.
“Welcome to the real world,” Marley told him as she clambered up the steep hill with Cruise following puppyishly on her heels. “Hard work is all we’ve got, so you’d better get used to it.”
Seattle closed his eyes as she approached, still feigning sleep. Marley grinned at his round, mud-flecked belly as it rose and fell. “Brat. You’re going to have so much winter weight to work off when spring comes around.”
Despite his reluctance to get up, Marley was able to reassure herself that there was nothing wrong with the pony other than his indifference to her, and she knew him too well to take that as a personal slight. Stretching her arms in their threadbare jacket over her head, she gazed down at the small farm house that she’d grown up in. She knew every inch of it like the back of her hand, knew every floorboard that creaked, every window that jammed, every door that swelled in the damp and had to be kicked open and shut. She had spent her entire life there, and had never even considered leaving. It was her home – their home, hers and her sisters’. At least, it always had been. But things were changing. Van had left, gone off to America to work at a flashy show jumping stable in Florida, and Seamus had been installed in her stead. Van’s absence wasn’t permanent, of course, but Seamus’s addition was, now that he’d married Kris and settled himself into their house. Dad’s bedroom had become their bedroom, and Kris’s room was being prepared as a nursery. Marley shook her head slowly as she looked at the tightly-drawn curtains in the master bedroom. It’d been almost two months since her eldest sister had broken the news to her that she was going to have a baby, but it still seemed incredible to Marley. Not that she doubted Kris would make an excellent mother – after all, she’d had plenty of practice, having dragged Van and Marley up after their father died several years ago. Kris was the closest thing to a mother that Marley had ever known, as their own mother had died only hours after she was born, and yet thinking of her as a married, pregnant woman was still a little jarring.
“Things are changing a bit too fast around here,” she told Cruise as she started back down the hill towards the house, with the pinto pony on her heels.
Kris forced her eyes to open, and stared blearily at the alarm clock next to her bed. 6:55. Five more minutes. She closed her eyes again, and snuggled deeper underneath the warm covers. The bed creaked as Seamus rolled over, then the warm weight of him rested against her back and she felt his arm slide across her waist.
“What time is it?”
“Five to seven.”
Seamus groaned. “Is it really? I’ve to be up at the stud by eight, and that’s a half hour drive.”
“You better get up then,” Kris replied without opening her eyes.
“Five more minutes,” he whispered, leaning over to kiss the edge of her cheek.
Kris smiled, but only for a moment. Pushing back the covers and flinging Seamus’s arm off her, she got quickly to her feet and stumbled blearily towards the door, overcome by a sudden bout of nausea. Seamus sighed as she left the room, rolling onto his back and resting his hands behind his head as he stared contemplatively up at the cracked ceiling. Nothing he could do about Kris’s morning sickness, other than feel guilty for being (in some way) the cause of it. He’d have taken it on himself if he could, but bereft of that option and having been firmly shooed away when he’d offered immediate comfort, he was left to wait it out, and hope that it would abate soon. Unable to lie in bed and listen to Kris’s predicament, he tossed off the blankets and picked up his jeans off the floor by his side of the bed, pulling them on and distracting himself by mentally running through the list of horses he had to shoe that day.
Kris pulled a face at herself in the mirror as she brushed her teeth, doing her best to ignore the dark circles under her eyes that wouldn’t go away. She needed to wash her hair, she decided. She’d feel better after a shower, but first she needed a cup of tea. Grabbing the dressing gown off the back of the bathroom door, she wrapped herself up in it, then headed down to the kitchen to boil the kettle, one hand still resting on her uneasy stomach. The kitchen door was standing open, and Kris was only half-paying attention as she walked into the room, until she saw something that made her stop in her tracks.
“What the hell!”
“Don’t yell, you’ll spook him,” Marley said, sitting at the table with a heaped bowl of cornflakes. Across the table from her, standing right in the middle of the kitchen with his head in his own bowl of cereal and his tail in the sink, was Cruise.
“Get that pony out of the kitchen.” Kris’s voice shook with barely suppressed anger. “Right now, Marley!”
“He’s fine,” her sister said, waving her spoon lazily in the air and spattering droplets of milk across the tablecloth. “He’s on his best behaviour, I swear. He followed me down to the house and when I said he couldn’t come in he gave me this look and I couldn’t resist.”
Marley beamed across the table at the pony, who swished his tail, and the frying pan on the draining board slid dangerously towards the edge of the bench.
“Well I can,” Kris asserted. She was feeling sick again, and desperately impatient with her headstrong little sister. “I mean it. Get him out of here!”
Behind her, she heard footsteps, and she stood a little straighter as Seamus came through the doorway behind her. Backup, she thought, but her relief was short-lived. Seamus put a hand on her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze as he walked past her into the room.
“Mornin’,” he greeted Marley with a nod, and she mumbled a response through a mouthful of cornflakes, watching intently as he approached Cruise. Without batting an eyelid, he slapped the pinto gelding gently on the rump. “Shift over, you.” Cruise obediently shifted his hindquarters, and Seamus flipped the switch on the electric jug, then looked back over at Kris. “Cuppa tea?”
Her frustration now at boiling point, Kris hovered for a moment between yelling at the pair of them and just walking out of the room and going back to bed.
Marley looked at her sister’s expression, then shovelled another generous spoonful of cornflakes into her mouth and gazed lovingly at her pony, who was lipping up stray cornflakes off the scarred wooden table. But Seamus had caught Kris’s eye and decided to go into bat for her.
“Go on now, do as your sister told you and get this great lump out of the kitchen before he leaves us with an unwelcome calling card,” he told her.
Marley sighed. “Okay, fine. Cruise and I were getting bored of your company anyway.” Standing up, she tipped her bowl and drank the remaining milk before setting it down on the table and clicking her tongue at the pony. “C’mon then. Let’s leave the old people to their civilised breakfast.”
“Thanks, much obliged,” Seamus replied cheerfully as he poured boiling water into the mugs he had set out.
Marley stopped in front of her sister. “You’re in the way.”
Kris shuffled sideways, letting Marley pass. “Don’t do that again.”
Marley rolled her eyes. “Okay okay, but you have to admit that it’s funny.”
Kris glared at her sister, but the corner of her mouth twitched involuntarily. Marley noticed it, and grinned.
“Just get him out of here,” Kris said, then as Cruise lifted his tail suddenly, added with greater urgency, “Now!”
“Close call,” Seamus observed as he splashed milk into the mugs, watching Marley through the rain-streaked kitchen window as she led Cruise by the forelock into the back yard, where he promptly relieved himself.
Kris shook her head and sat down. “Just when I think she’s finally starting to grow up, she goes and does something like that.”
“I’m not sure she’ll ever properly grow up,” Seamus told her, setting a mug of tea down in front of her. “You fancy anything to eat?”
She shook her head. “I’ll eat later, when I feel a bit more up to it. I might take this back to bed,” she added as he pulled a frying pan out of the cupboard and set it on the stove. The very thought of bacon and eggs was making her nauseous, and she wasn’t sure she could sit in the room while Seamus cooked them. The cold floor was making her toes curl up defensively, and she thought longingly of her warm blankets. She shouldn’t do it, she knew. There was too much to do to waste any more time lying in bed, but her resolve had been wavering these past few weeks, and now it was utterly spent.
“Yeah. Have a good day, I’ll see you tonight.” And she left the room, her hands wrapped around the hot ceramic mug and stomach still gurgling uneasily.
Kris’s slipper-clad feet scuffed against the threadbare carpet as she made her way back upstairs. Her bedroom door was open, the bed still rumpled and inviting, but she walked past it. A trail of muddy footprints led her on, past the room that had once been hers and would soon be the nursery, and on to the door that was tightly closed. She reached out a hand and brushed her fingers over the handle, then gripped it firmly and opened the door.
Everything in here was exactly as she’d left it. The bed half-made, the clothes strewn across the floor, drawers half-opened and a broken suitcase discarded in the corner. Van had packed the same way she did everything – like a whirlwind, moving at full pace and never mind the consequences. Kris had planned to come in after she left here and tidy up, but somehow she couldn’t bring herself to do it. The sense of chaos that her sister had left behind was a strange comfort to her, and Kris sat down on the narrow single bed and leaned back against the peeling wallpaper, looking around at the life Van had left behind.
We miss you.
As Kris gazed around the room, her eye caught a picture that had been torn from a magazine and tacked above the desk – a horse soaring over a water jump, with blue skies and palm trees in the background. Florida. Leo Valdes. Grand Prix rider, top notch trainer. Van’s new employer. And Kris closed her eyes and rested her head back against the wall, the mug of hot tea held against her grumbling stomach.
We miss you, but you’ll be having way too much fun to be missing us.
* * *
The horse’s hooves pounded out a staccato beat across the arena surface. The reins were slick with sweat, and the bay gelding’s breath was coming in heavy pants through the muggy air. Van eased the big Warmblood back to a trot and clapped his sticky neck before glancing across the ring towards Leo. He had his back turned, watching one of his students ride. He seemed relaxed in the insistent Florida sun, but Van still wasn’t used to the heat. There were a lot of things she still wasn’t used to.
There was no denying that it was the opportunity of a lifetime. The chance to ride in America, to work for a successful Grand Prix rider, to learn what it took from the people who were actually doing it – it was everything that an ambitious but underfunded twenty-year-old could’ve dreamed of. She’d never expected it to be easy. She’d come here to ride and work and learn as she’d never ridden and worked before. But the reality of life as a groom and catch rider in Florida wasn’t quite living up to Van’s expectations. Long days – check. Hard work – double check. That was fine – she’d never laboured under any assumptions that she was going away on holiday. She hadn’t expected days off, or decent pay, or to be handed rides on Grand Prix jumpers. She’d known, before she’d arrived, that she’d be up at dawn and done at dusk, that she’d be at the bottom of the pecking order, having to do as she was told, when she was told – a change of pace for someone used to doing everything herself, but one she was willing to accept. Because she’d come here to learn the things she couldn’t teach herself, the things Kris couldn’t give her, not that she’d ever have expected her to. Her sister had done enough for her, for all of them, and it was time that Van grew up and was more independent and gave Kris the chance to live her own life.
Van swung her leg over the gelding’s back and loosened his girth, then led him over to the exit gate. Sweat trickled down the small of her back and made her underarms itch. Dust coated her skin and irritated her eyes, and she almost didn’t see the tall chestnut horse in tight draw reins that was being cantered past the gate.
“Watch it!” The rider snapped as Van came to a sudden halt, stopping the big bay next to her in the nick of time before they had a collision.
The gelding threw his head up in surprise and Van took a step back to avoid having her face kicked in by the rider’s stirrup. The bright sunlight glinted off the spur that was jabbing into the chestnut’s sweat-soaked flank, and Van couldn’t help turning her head to watch the horse as he horse cantered past. His head was held tightly down to his chest, an expanse of white foam issued from his straining mouth and flecked his narrow chest. Van bit her tongue, wishing she could close her eyes. The rail cleared, and she led the bay horse out of the ring and along the palm tree-lined path towards the air-conditioned barn, both of their steps quickening as they approached the cooler building.
More to come! Check back in a week, and leave your comments below x