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Excerpt from Pony Jumpers #10: TOP TEN

Chapter 1 – Departure 

The morning dew was heavy on the grass outside my bedroom window, and the clear sky above promised a sunny day to come. Not that I would be here to see it. I leaned my forehead against the window pane and stared out at the unkempt garden, overgrown with weeds because Mum and I didn’t waste our time on pointless things like gardening. Beyond the scraggly shrubs lay our neatly fenced paddocks, and I counted off the ponies grazing contentedly in them. Lucas and Puppet happily coexisting in one paddock, with Molly in the smaller field next to them. Squib and Robin in the narrow ‘fatty’ paddock without much grass, because they lived off the smell of it. And my horse Tori, just visible from here if I turned my head and leaned into the cold glass, impossibly beautiful, impossible to ride.

Tori lifted her head and pricked her ears, staring at something away in the distance. I opened the window and leaned out, ignoring the chilly wind that went straight through the thin t-shirt I was wearing, and as Tori snorted and spun on her hocks, I heard the same thing she did. The growl of a dirt bike, coming our way.

Like my horse, the sound jolted me into action. I pulled the window shut and grabbed a hoodie off the floor, tugging it on before pulling on a pair of jeans and buttoning the fly. The dirt bike got louder and louder, then cut out abruptly, and I hurried down the hall in bare feet and threw the back door open to see Phil step off the bike and pull his helmet off, revealing his thick mop of dark hair.

“Hey.”

He turned towards me and smiled, that slow smile that I especially liked. “Hey yourself.”

I stopped on the bottom step of the front verandah, curling my toes over the wooden edge, unwilling to venture barefoot onto the stones. “You’re up early.”

He shrugged. “You said you were leaving at half six, and I wanted to see you before you were gone.” His boots crunched across the loose gravel as he made his way towards me.

“That’s funny, because I could’ve sworn we said goodbye last night.”

Phil shrugged sheepishly and stopped in front of me. I wrapped my arms around his neck and hugged him, and he pulled me close, holding me tight against his warm body.

“I don’t want to go,” I whispered into his ear, knowing I could say that to him. Knowing he’d understand. That he wouldn’t tell me that I was crazy, that going to Ireland to ride for my country was the opportunity of a lifetime, that I was sure to love it once I got there, and all the other things everyone else kept saying. Phil knew how I really felt – that deep down, I was utterly terrified.

“I know. I don’t want you to go either.”

A flicker of light made me turn my head, and I saw Mum walk into the kitchen and pull a loaf of bread out of the pantry. My stomach clenched at the thought of breakfast this early in the morning, even knowing that a long day of travel lay ahead.

Phil lifted his head and when I looked back at him, he kissed me. Like everything he did, it was intense, no-holds-barred, his hands in my tousled hair, lean body pressed against mine. His lips were soft and he tasted of spearmint, and closed my eyes and kissed him back, trying not to be distracted by the prospect of subjecting him to my own terrible morning breath.

I heard the window swing open behind us, then Mum’s voice. “Katy, breakfast.”

I broke off the kiss, and looked up into Phil’s dark eyes. “You hungry?” I asked.

He smiled. “I could eat.”

I don’t think Mum was super happy to have Phil eating with us, although I’m not sure whether it was because she was running low on eggs or because we sat at the table holding hands while we ate. I knew that annoyed her, even though she liked Phil okay. I didn’t care. I wanted to hold tight to everything I had before I had to leave it behind. My little dog Critter was curled up in my lap, unimpressed by the early start, and his warm body and Phil’s warm hand comforted me in a way that no reassuring words out of Mum’s mouth ever could.

Mum sat down opposite us and started cutting into her bacon. “Nervous?” she asked me.

Couldn’t she tell that by looking at my face? “What do you think?”

Phil squeezed my hand, and I responded in kind as Critter sat up and licked my chin.

“Don’t let him do that at the table,” Mum complained.

“He can do what he likes,” I replied, because my nerves were making me irritable and I didn’t feel like being read a lecture when I felt this edgy. “He loves me, don’t you Crit?”

I put down my fork and wrapped my arm around the little dog, clutching him to my chest. He squirmed uncomfortably, but I selfishly held him for a few seconds longer before letting him go. Critter leapt onto the floor and stalked off to his basket indignantly, his short tail sticking up in the air.

“I’ll miss you too,” I told his rear end.

“Eat up,” Mum nagged, and I reluctantly picked up my fork as Phil’s thumb methodically stroked the back of my hand. I didn’t know what I’d be doing right now if he wasn’t there to keep me calm. Having a full-blown panic attack, most likely.

Mum was still watching me like a hawk, so I filled my mouth with scrambled eggs, forcing myself to chew and swallow the food. My stomach argued, insisting that there was too much uncertainty ahead to bother with such unnecessary things as eating, but in the face of my mother’s glare, I overrode my instincts and ate half of what was on my plate, before lowering my fork definitively. Mum accepted that, because she knew me well enough to pick her battles, and she stood up and started clearing the plates.

“It’s five past,” she announced, as though nobody else in the room could see the clock on the wall. “Are you all packed?”

“Almost.”

“Well, hurry up then. We need to leave in ten minutes.”

I took a deep breath, trying to steady my anxiety. Pretend you’re going to a show, I counselled myself. Just another early morning on the way to a competition, like you’ve done hundreds of times. Only this time we would be in the car, not the truck, with no reassuring bulk of warm ponies behind us. I’d be going alone, without my team.

“Can Phil come to the airport with us?” I asked her.

Mum frowned, but Phil spoke before she did.

“Can’t,” he said ruefully. “I’ve got work.” He’d recently started working at a local supermarket, stocking shelves. He hated it, but it was a way to both get out of his house and earn some money, so he put up with the inconvenient hours and working conditions.

“Call in sick?” I suggested, but he shook his head.

“I wish.” He stood up as Mum cleared his plate away. “Thanks for breakfast.”

“Any time,” she said, probably not meaning it.

“I’ll walk you out,” I told him.

“Seven minutes,” Mum warned me.

I ignored her, following Phil outside and giving him a long hug and another lingering kiss before he got back onto his dirt bike and rode it back home. I watched him go, the cloud of dust he’d kicked up making my throat dry. Mum flung the kitchen window open and yelled at me again.

“Katy! Would you get a move on?”

 * * *

There wasn’t much traffic on the road at that time of the morning. I stared out of the window while Mum ran over my itinerary again, out loud, in case I’d somehow forgotten it in the last half hour.

“You have three hours at Auckland airport before your international flight leaves,” she said. “Your luggage is being sent straight through, and you’ve got your boarding pass, so you just have to find the Christiansons and they’ll take care of you.”

“So you keep saying,” I muttered.

With Mum utterly unable to get three-plus weeks of leave from work, and Dad having some apparently crucial business trip in Singapore to attend, my supervision had been lumped onto my teammate Lily and her parents. I’d assumed, naively as it turned out, that when you went on a team trip, the entire team would all meet at the airport and fly over together. But the two senior riders who’d been selected, Ellie Warren and Imogen Davis-Blake, had found working pupil positions at show jumping yards in Europe back in March, so they were already in the northern hemisphere. The two intermediate riders, Anna Harcourt and Charlotte Yeats, had flown over a few days ago with their mothers to spend a week with Charlotte’s relatives in Hampshire, leaving just me and Lily to bring up the rear. Charlotte’s mother Maureen was our team chef d’equipe, and although Dennis Foxhall-James had been announced as our team coach, he’d pulled out at the last minute over a pay dispute, which had caused an enormous kerfuffle that I had done my best to stay out of. In the end, they’d decided that Maureen would coach us as well as managing the team, which sounded to me like a recipe for disaster, but nobody had asked me.

“You’ll have a six hour layover in Los Angeles, then fly on to Dublin,” Mum continued, breaking into my thoughts.

“I know,” I reminded her. “I have read the itinerary, you know.”

To shut her up and to distract myself, I took the paperwork out of its folder and smoothed it out on my lap, staring down at the printed itinerary. Dennis had been arranging our first week of training and competition, but when he walked, rather than arrange anything else, Maureen had just shortened the tour by a week. After we’d bought non-transferable flights, of course. That had left me with ten unallocated days between my arrival in the country and the day that we would all finally come together as a team. Mum’s utter panic had resulted in me being handed off to the Christiansons to look after, a fate I was sure that none of us wanted, but were all stuck with.

Lily was my teammate in the Junior division for the Youth Nations Cup, and quite what the selectors had been thinking when they’d picked her ahead of my friend Susannah Andrews, I couldn’t tell you. Lily was twelve years old, had only just started jumping at the top level a year ago, and although she had a decent seat, was as green as grass. Although she had very good ponies which she had steered competently enough to win some big classes at home, if she drew any kind of pony in Ireland that required actual riding, we were stuffed. Susannah had been named as a non-travelling reserve, so I’d been keeping my fingers crossed that Lily would fall off or fall ill before the trip, meaning Susannah could come instead, but to no avail.

I looked down at the itinerary again, trying to focus on the part of the trip that actually had been organised. A training camp at a big venue in Co. Wexford with a top Irish trainer, followed by a week of sightseeing before the big event – the Youth Nations Cup. My stomach clenched apprehensively.

“You’ll have a wonderful time, Katy,” Mum said, as if she could read my mind. “I’m so jealous. And even if the first week or so is a bit tough to get through, it’ll be worth it once you’re on a horse, wearing the silver fern on your jacket.” She sighed heavily, returning her eyes to the road. “God, I wish I was coming with you.”

Don’t say that. Not out loud. I blinked hard and looked out of my side of the car, fighting back tears. I couldn’t reply, or I’d start crying and begging her not to make me do this alone. Both of us had dreamed of this for years, the chance to ride for New Zealand, to wear that silver fern and see our flag waving from the rafters of a big indoor stadium. And maybe, just maybe, standing on a podium and hearing the national anthem being played in victory. I’d laid in bed and imagined it all, many times – but never in my wildest dreams had I imagined doing any of it without my mother by my side.

My phone buzzed, and I looked down as the screen lit up with a message from Susannah.

Good luck go hard and have an amazing time! Wish I was coming with you 😦

I wish that toooooo, I typed back. Which was crazy, really, because if you’d told me a year ago that I’d have to spend three weeks with Susannah Andrews, I would have told you that I’d rather pull my fingernails out with pliers. But over the past few months we’d gone from despising each other to actually becoming friends.

I’d assumed that Susannah was texting me from her bed, which is where I’d be at this time of any normal morning, but she sent back a selfie of her and Forbes, the warmblood pony she’d bought from me a few months ago. He was standing in his stable with his ears pricked, his coat gleaming, and she had her arm over his neck as she smiled brilliantly at the camera, all blonde hair and blue eyes and straight white teeth, looking polished and pretty despite the early hour. Only Susannah could make mucking out look glamourous. I still had no idea how she did it.

I sent her back a row of four-leaf clover emojis, because I couldn’t think of any other response. The car jolted over a speed hump, and I looked up to see that we were driving into the Napier airport already. Sick dread lay over me like a shroud, but I did my best to hide it. Although my flight wasn’t for ages, Mum hurried me into the building and checked the departure board anxiously while I dragged my suitcase behind me.

I followed her to the check-in area, smiled weakly at the cheerful woman behind the counter, and lugged my suitcase onto the conveyor belt as instructed. It was heavy and cumbersome, and the whole effort was made more awkward by having to surreptitiously shoulder my mother’s attempts to help me out of the way.

“I can do it,” I muttered, wondering how she thought I was going to get along for three-and-a-half weeks without her if she didn’t even trust me to be able to lift my own suitcase thirty centimetres off the ground.

Mum said nothing, just threw her hands up and stepped backwards as the woman stuck a label on the handle, then hit a button that sent my suitcase trundling off onto the bigger conveyor and on down the line into oblivion, only to be seen again when we reached Irish soil. It suddenly seemed terrifyingly far away, and I stepped back shakily, my passport clutched tightly in my hand.

“Where do I go now?”

“Check your boarding pass,” Mum suggested, then read it over my shoulder. “Gate two. This way.”

As we walked in that direction, I bumped my arm against my mother’s in silent affirmation that she was still there, by my side – at least for now. I was starting to realise how terrified I was to leave her behind, and how much I was going to miss her while I was gone. We drove each other crazy on a daily basis, and argued all the time, but she was my mother. For years, it had just been the two of us, and we’d never been apart for this long. Ever. A lump rose in my throat, but I gritted my teeth and stared determinedly ahead.

Don’t be a wimp. You’re going on an adventure, not to your execution.

“Are you hungry?” Mum asked, oblivious to my internal anguish. “We’ve got a bit of time. Do you want something to eat before you go?” I shook my head, unable to stomach the thought of food, but she pressed me. “Are you sure?”

Her nagging irritated me, and I grasped the excuse to snap at her, because otherwise I was in danger of bursting into tears and begging her to just drop everything and come with me.

“Of course I’m sure,” I snapped. “They do serve food on planes, you know.”

Mum responded to my narkiness the same way she always did – by averting her eyes and letting out a small sigh, staring into the distance towards a time and place when I would no longer be a horrible teenager and would be bearable to be around. But when it came time to board, I lost the struggle to hold back my tears. It didn’t help that Mum cried too as she hugged me goodbye, and I sobbed into her t-shirt as she stroked my hair and told me that I’d be fine once I was on my way, and this was the adventure of a lifetime, and she loved me no matter what. I pulled myself away from her at last, wiping my eyes and leaving a damp patch on her shoulder as I grabbed my hand luggage and turned around, knowing I couldn’t turn back because I’d just start bawling again. And so I walked on, through the sliding doors and out onto the warm tarmac, reminding myself with every step that I would only be gone for three-and-a-half weeks. Twenty-five days. That was all. That was nothing, right?

The flight to Auckland was short and smooth, and the plane landed a couple of minutes early. I grabbed my backpack and waited impatiently to get off the plane, feeling more and more hemmed in and claustrophobic the longer I had to wait. The thought of all the flying that still lay ahead of me was giving me nervous palpitations. How did people do this every day?

Eventually I managed to get out into the main terminal of Auckland airport, where I was supposed to meet the Christiansons. It was a lot bigger than Napier, but although I wandered around a little bit, I couldn’t see any sign of them. A flight from Wellington was landing in ten minutes’ time, so I went to that arrivals gate and st down with my bag at my feet, staring at the clock on the wall and waiting.

Five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen. The flight arrived, and I stood up, keeping my eyes peeled, but they weren’t there. I checked the arrivals board again and discovered that flights from Wellington came in every hour or so, but I didn’t know which one they were on. I was scrolling through Instagram in an attempt to distract myself from complete panic when I saw a selfie that Lily had posted nearly an hour earlier, grinning in front of a plate of fruit salad.

Ireland bound! Kickin back in the int’l Koru lounge while we wait to fly out #yestofreefood #onlywaytotravel #AKLairport

I stared at it for a moment in shock, then stood up and looked around. I had no idea where the Koru Lounge was, but there was an information desk off to the side, so I went that way.

“How do I get to the Koru Lounge?”

The man behind the counter eyed me suspiciously. “Do you have a Club card?”

“Well, no…” I started to say, and he shook his head.

“Then you can’t go in. It’s not for everyone. You have to be a member.”

“I know that. But my friends are in there.” I held up my phone to show him Lily’s Instagram, and he squinted at it.

“That’s the international lounge,” he told me. “You’re at the wrong terminal.”

“Oh. Right.” Duh. I started to turn away, then spun back. “Wait, how do I get there?”

“You can take a shuttle, or it’s a ten minute walk,” the guy told me, pointing me towards a well-marked path that wound through the car park and along to the international terminal.

I followed the painted trail, my hands shoved deep into the pockets of my thin jacket as the straps of my heavy backpack dug painfully into my shoulders. The wind whipped around me, pulling strands of hair out of my ponytail and chasing them across my face as planes took off and landed around me.

Once inside the international terminal, I walked down the wide expanse of carpet, surrounded on all sides by people in various states of transit – smartly-dressed people with briefcases and phones to their ears, only in town for the day; intrepid travellers with backpacks stuffed to bursting, hiking boots and sleeping bags dangling off the side; families with luggage trolleys piled high, bickering amongst themselves in languages that I didn’t understand. A small child sat on her hard plastic suitcase with a soft toy clutched in her arms, staring vacantly at the commotion around her, and I watched her enviously, wishing I could just be led around by someone who knew what they were doing, instead of being left to navigate my travel alone.

Almost there. I spotted a sign for the Koru Lounge, and arrived there with a palpable sense of relief. The woman at the desk smiled at me, and I did my best to respond in kind.

“Hi. My friends are in there and I need to go join them.”

“Name?”

“Katy O’Reilly.”

She tapped something into the computer, then shook her head. “There’s no registration for O’Reilly.”

“Oh. Um, their name is Christianson.”

“First names?”

“Uh…” I racked my brains, but I couldn’t remember Lily’s father’s name. Or her mother’s, for that matter. I knew it, but it wouldn’t come to me. “Lily?”

She tapped a few keys, then looked at me again. “We do have a passenger booked under that name. I’ll see if I can get someone to locate her for you.”

“I know what they look like,” I assured her. “Can’t I just go in?”

She shook her head. “Sorry, love, but I can’t let you do that. Let me just put a call through, and Lily can come out and sign you in. How’s that?”

So I nodded and stood off to the side with my backpack at my feet as other travellers were swiped through the sliding glass doors into the promised land of the Koru Lounge. As I waited, it gradually occurred to me that maybe the Christiansons were making this awkward on purpose, as punishment for crashing their family trip. Mum said they’d assured her that it would be no problem to have me along, but I was dubious. My mother was a pretty poor liar, and I had a sneaking suspicion that they had only said yes out of obligation, not because they wanted me around. I looked at the floor, fighting the desire to get on the next flight back to Napier and tell Susannah to take my place on the team.

Then I heard the sliding doors open with a swish, followed by a familiar voice. “Hi Katy.”

I looked up to see Lily, and I smiled at her as I grabbed my bag off the floor and waited while she signed us in, then led me into the Koru Lounge. It was big and warm and in-your-face trendy. We walked past the long buffet table and over to where her parents were sitting. Her dad was tapping away on a laptop, and her mother was sipping coffee as she flipped through a glossy magazine.

She looked up at my approach, and produced an insincere smile. “Katy, there you are. How was your flight?”

I did my best to smile back as I took a seat next to Lily. “Um, fine thanks.”

Sonya – I’d finally remembered her name – nodded vaguely and took another sip of coffee. “Lily, love, did you order that hot chocolate you wanted?”

Lily was scrolling through her phone, and shook her head without looking up. “Not yet.”

“Well, hurry up if you want time to drink it. We’ll be boarding soon. Are you as excited for this trip as our daughter is, Katy?” she asked. “Lily has been talking about it non-stop for weeks, we just can’t shut her up about it!” She laughed in a fake kind of way, then nudged her daughter with her toe. “Lily, get ordering.”

“I’ve just done it,” she muttered. “I texted it through.”

“Of course you did. Technology!” she told me with a laugh, as though I was supposed to be impressed that you could text your drink order to a bar only a few metres away instead of just getting up and walking to it. “Oh, did you want a hot chocolate too? Lily, add one onto the order for Katy.”

“I can’t just add one on,” her daughter replied. “I would have to do a second order.”

“Well, do that then.”

I spoke quickly, before I ended up with a hot chocolate that I would have to drink. I wasn’t sure my stomach could handle anything right now, and certainly not anything that sweet. Or milky. “Thanks, but I’m fine. I don’t really like hot chocolate.”

“Sure?” Sonya asked. “Well, there’s a buffet over there. Go help yourself if you’re hungry.”

I shook my head. “I’m fine.”

She shrugged and went back to flicking through her magazine, but Lily looked at me. “The chocolate chip biscuits are really good,” she said conspiratorially. “I’ve got like, ten of them in my bag. Plane food sucks, so it’s always good to have a backup.”

“Thanks, but I’m fine,” I repeated. I was starting to sound like a broken record, even to myself.

Lily shrugged and went back to her phone, so I reached into my pocket to check mine too – only to discover that it was no longer there.

 

Chapter 2 – Long Haul

Don’t panic yet, I told myself. Check your other pockets before you panic. But it wasn’t in my other pocket either, or any of the pockets in my jeans. I grabbed my backpack and hauled it up onto my lap, then started rummaging through it. Lily glanced at me a couple of times, but nobody said anything until I had completed my search, and dropped the bag at my feet with a thud.

“Everything okay?” Sonya asked.

“I’ve lost my phone.” My voice came out shaky, and I swallowed hard.

“Oh dear.” Sonya was trying to sound sympathetic, but her expression clearly told me that found my carelessness exasperating. “Where did you last use it?”

I thought back. “Um…when I was in the Domestic terminal.” I’d pulled it out of my pocket to show the guy who’d told me I couldn’t get into the Koru Lounge, and I couldn’t remember having it since.

“Did you leave it there?”

“I don’t know. Maybe?” I was already trying to work out if I had enough time to run back and get it. How far had it been? How long would it take?

“You should keep better track of your belongings,” Lily’s father said, the first words he’d spoken to me since I’d got there.

“Oh, Hugh,” Sonya scolded him. “Lily loses things all the time as well.”

“I know where it is,” I said, getting to my feet. “I’m pretty sure I left it at an information desk. I can go get it.”

Hugh looked up at me. “You don’t have time. We’ll be boarding shortly.”

“I’m a fast runner,” I said desperately.

“Are you sure you need it?” Hugh asked me, and Sonya slapped his arm with the back of her hand.

“Come on Hugh, she’s a teenage girl. They don’t last five minutes without their phones. Frankly, I’m surprised it took her this long to realise she’d left it behind.” Sonya sighed heavily, then put her magazine down and stood up. “Okay, Katy. Come with me.”

I followed her through the lounge and over to an information desk, where she explained the situation to a bemused airline assistant. I was about to find out that one of the perks of being rich enough to join the Koru Club was excellent customer service, because the woman was very understanding and immediately rang over to the Domestic terminal to see if she could track my phone down. It took forever, and I stood nervously aside as she was transferred from one desk to another, pausing a few times to ask me questions about where exactly I’d been, and which booth I’d asked at. I just shrugged.

“It said Information,” I told her.

“We’ll find it,” she assured me, just as announcement came over the speakers that our flight was about to commence boarding.

Sonya sighed, then looked at me. “You’ll just have to buy a new phone in Dublin.”

“I can’t do that,” I told Sonya. “I need my phone.”

Sonya rolled her eyes and walked away, leaving me with the woman behind the desk.

“I’ll keep trying,” she promised, giving me a sympathetic smile as she slid a notepad and pen over. “If we track it down before your departure, we’ll bring it to the gate for you. But in case we don’t, you’d better write down your name and home address, and we can pop it on a courier.”

I just wanted to cry. It wasn’t so much that I was addicted to my phone – okay, I was kind of addicted – but that it was the only connection I’d have to the people that I was leaving behind. The prospect of pending almost three weeks without being able to contact Mum, Phil or AJ was terrifying, but there was nothing else that I could do.

A few minutes later, I was trailing the Christiansons out of the lounge and across the airport to our gate. They showed their tickets and were ushered straight through, but when I attempted to follow them, I was stopped.

“Business class only. You’ll have to wait for main boarding.”

“Oh.” I looked down at the boarding pass in my hand, then watched as Lily and her family disappeared down the chute and onto the plane without a backward glance.

 * * *

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We are about to begin our descent into Dublin…”

I opened my eyes and blinked in the bright cabin lights. The woman sitting by the window had pushed the shade up, but all I could see was clouds. On paper, 26 hours in transit hadn’t seemed like all that much. It was more than a whole day, sure, but I’d intended to spend most of the time watching movies and sleeping. But I’d never flown so far before, and I hadn’t been prepared for how loud it would be, or how difficult it was to sleep sitting up. The cabin pressure was giving me a headache, my eyes were gritty, and my neck ached from the position I’d put it in when I’d finally fallen asleep. I couldn’t wait to land and get off the plane. Three-and-a-half weeks suddenly seemed like a very short time to wait before having to go through all this again on the way home. My eyes welled up with exhausted, lonely tears as we dropped below the clouds, and I caught my first glimpse of Ireland. The grass was green but the sky was grey, and raindrops spattered the plane’s windows as we made our slow descent.

It seemed to take forever for us to touch down onto the tarmac, and even longer before the seatbelt sign went off. I stood up immediately, desperate to stretch my legs and get out of this sardine can. The air conditioning had been switched off, and the air was moist and warm with all of the human bodies squished into such a small space. My heartbeat quickened, and my breath came more quickly. Just breathe, I told myself. This was not the time or place to have a full-blown anxiety attack. I knelt on my seat and closed my eyes, breathing deeply as the people around me chatted and laughed. Up the front of the plane, a baby started to cry.

Finally, there was movement. I shoved my way out into the aisle as people began shuffling towards the exit, almost forgetting my backpack in the overhead locker and having to go back for it. It took an interminably long time to get down the aisle, but finally I was in the terminal, my feet on solid ground at last. The Christiansons were waiting for me this time, looking relaxed and well-groomed as usual, and I staggered towards them with my headache bashing against my skull.

I wanted to be excited, to bask in the thrill of having arrived at a foreign destination, but all I could think about was getting to the hotel, having a shower, taking some painkillers and falling into a deep, much-needed sleep.

We piled into a taxi, which wove its way through the stone buildings of Dublin before pulling up outside a vast hotel. When Mum and I went on holiday, we stayed in the cheapest places available, but the Christiansons preferred to travel in style. They were rich, and they obviously enjoyed flaunting it. Our hotel door was opened for us by a man in a top hat, and porters rushed forward to take our bags. My suitcase looked cheap and tacky in their gloved hands, especially when placed next to the Christiansons’ matching Louis Vuitton luggage in the foyer.

There were sparkling chandeliers and marble pillars, and a sweeping staircase which led up to a five-star restaurant. The staff fawned over us before escorting us up to our suite, which was absolutely insane. It was bigger than my entire house, with its own lounge and bar kitchen, and two huge bedrooms with en suite bathrooms. I stood in the middle of the room that I was sharing with Lily and stared around me at the impossible grandeur.

I could hear Sonya in the lounge, gushing over the décor, while Hugh said things like “it should be nice, it cost enough” and “that’s what you’d expect, for what we’re paying”.

While Lily was distracted logging her phone into the hotel wi-fi, I went to take a shower. The bathroom was sparkling clean, and the water pressure was so strong it felt like needles stabbing into my skin. I washed my hair and scrubbed myself down twice, then dried off and wrapped my hair in another thick white towel before going back out into our shared room.

Finally,” Lily said, sitting up and picking up her things before heading into the bathroom. “You took forever!”

While she was gone, I pulled the curtains and shut the door into the lounge, then lay down on my bed and closed my eyes. I’d never appreciated just how good it felt to lie flat on my back, and I stretched all of my muscles in turn, then relaxed my whole body into the springy mattress. I just needed a short nap, just a brief pause to let my headache abate and my stomach settle. The traffic roared past outside, but I quickly became oblivious to it as I sank down into a deep slumber.

 * * *

When I woke up, the room was empty. I rubbed my eyes, then sat up, my head foggy and throat thick and sore. At least my headache had subsided, but my stomach had realised how much it had been deprived of food since leaving New Zealand, and was painfully hungry. I ran my fingers through my damp hair, trying to look presentable, then opened the door into the lounge, ready to apologise for having overslept. I’d expected to find Lily and her parents in there, sitting on the couch or watching TV, but they weren’t there. I walked across and peered through the half-open door into the master bedroom, but it was empty as well.

They had gone out, and left me here alone. I sat down on the couch and stared out of the window at the rooftops of Dublin. I’d assumed that riding in the Nations Cup was going to be the most challenging factor in this trip, but at that moment, I would’ve given anything to have been walking through a stable or sitting in a saddle, instead of alone in a strange hotel room, feeling stranded, like a fish miles from the nearest water…

Suck it up, Katy, I told myself firmly. You’re being pathetic. My stomach rumbled, and I looked around the hotel room, my eyes alighting on a large basket of snack food that the hotel had left out for us. They really do think of everything around here, I thought with relief, and I’d consumed a bag of potato chips, half a packet of pistachio nuts and a can of Coke before the Christiansons returned.

“Katy, you’re awake,” Sonya declared, as though it wasn’t obvious by the fact that I was sitting there, staring at her. “Did you have a nice sleep?” As though I was five years old and had just woken from my afternoon nap.

I forced myself to remain civil. “Fine, thanks.”

“I see you got hungry,” she said, eying my empty food wrappers.

“Yeah, a bit.” I wondered if I should have asked first, but it wasn’t as though there wasn’t heaps left. “Lily was right. The food on the plane was horrible.”

“Oh really? Ours was quite nice, I thought,” Sonya said as Hugh walked up behind her and glared at me.

“Raiding the mini-bar already, are we?” he asked. “I’ll put it on your tab.” I smiled at him, thinking it was a joke, but his expression didn’t change.

“We’ve made a dinner reservation at the hotel restaurant for seven,” Sonya told me. “So you’d better get changed.”

I looked down at the jeans and sweatshirt I was wearing. “Changed?”

“It’s a nice restaurant, Katy,” she said, as though explaining something obvious to a toddler. “There’s a dress code.”

Fortunately, I’d packed a dress, just in case I’d be required us to go to any fancy shindigs, although I hadn’t expected to need it so soon. I went back to my room to change, then waited while Lily hogged the bathroom, applying a ridiculous amount of makeup for a twelve-year-old girl and leaving me barely time to slap some mascara and lip gloss on before Sonya summoned us into the lounge.

Before I’d left, I’d thought that my simple blue dress was perfect for the trip – classy enough for a fancy occasion, but understated enough for a more casual one. Yet when I walked out into the lounge and saw what everyone else was wearing, I felt incredibly underdressed.

“I suppose that will do,” Sonya said with pursed lips, adjusting her gold shawl before heading towards the door with her perfectly presented family in tow.

As if I could’ve predicted that I’d be staying in a place like this, I thought grumpily as I followed her out into the hall. Nobody had put a ball gown on the packing list. A grandfather clock struck seven as we walked past it, and I counted back the hours as we waited for the lift to arrive. Four hours since we’d landed in Dublin. Thirty-six hours since I’d left New Zealand, and so far, all I wanted to do was turn around and go back home.

The lift dinged its arrival, and the doors slid open. Lily and her parents stepped inside, and I gritted my teeth, took a breath, and followed them.

 

Chapter 3 – Change of Plan

Dinner started out okay. Sonya just talked a lot about the local tourist attractions and which ones were ‘must-sees’ for Lily, as she hadn’t been to Ireland before. The food was expensive and the servings were tiny, but it was so richly flavoured that it was making my still-sensitive stomach uneasy. I picked at my risotto, trying to ignore Sonya’s pointed glares. She’d made sure to tell me that the meal was their ‘treat’, but apparently that meant I was expected to gush over the food like they did, smacking my lips and declaring that I hadn’t had such delicious pâté since I was last in Paris – which I was never going to do, because a) pâté is disgusting, and b) the last time I was in Paris was never.

“Speaking of France, I think we should head over on Monday,” Hugh said abruptly, making me almost choke on my food. “There’s no point wasting too much time wandering around Dublin. We’re here to look at ponies, not paintings.”

I just blinked across the table at him as Lily started literally bouncing in her seat with excitement. “Ooh, can we go to Nice? There’s the most spectacular pony there that I would actually die for. Remember, Mum? The bay with the white stockings? We have to go and try it.”

Sonya smiled indulgently. “That was a very nice pony,” she agreed.

“And we’ve come all this way,” Lily insisted. “It’d be a waste of the airfares not to go and have a look at him. Can we? Please?”

“I don’t see why not,” Hugh replied, as I sat dumbstruck in the middle of their conversation, trying desperately to figure out how I was going to pay for additional flights to France, and accommodation in fancy hotels, and posh meals. Dad was going to be livid. He hated spending money, even though he had heaps of it. Mum loved spending it, and she had next to none. Go figure.

“What about you, Katy?” Hugh said, making my head snap up from my plate. He wasn’t even looking at me as he sliced off another piece of his steak and held it up near his mouth. It was practically raw, and meat juice dripped off it onto his plate. “What are your plans for the rest of the week?”

I just stared at him, slowly realising what he meant. I didn’t have to worry about how to pay for a trip to France, because I wasn’t invited.

I swallowed hard. “Um, I’m not sure. Are – are you all going?”

Hugh frowned across the table at Sonya, who directed her surprise at me. “I did tell your mother that,” she said, which seemed highly unlikely, since Mum would definitely have mentioned it to me.

“She asked us to escort you to Dublin, which we agreed to do,” Hugh said. “But there was never any arrangement for you to stay on with us after that. At least, not that I was aware of.”

Again, he looked across at Sonya, who shook her head. I couldn’t stop the tears from gathering in my eyes as panic set in. I was on the literal other side of the world from home, I was sick and jetlagged and exhausted, and now I had to deal with the fact that I had nowhere to go for the next ten days. How had this happened?

“We’ll sort something out,” Sonya said, noticing my panicked expression and apparently discovering some shred of humanity within her. “I’ll give Maureen a ring later this evening. She has plenty of contacts, I’m sure she’ll be able to arrange something for you until the rest of the team arrives.”

I nodded slowly, breaking apart the mound of rice on my plate with my fork. If I looked at any of them, I knew I’d burst into tears. I wished more than ever that I’d had the guts to refuse to come on this trip, to let Susannah take my place, to have stayed at home. Home, where my ponies grazed in their shady paddocks, where Critter snoozed on my lap while I did my homework in front of the TV, where everything was safe and familiar and I knew what I was going to do each day and where I would sleep every night.

But I wasn’t at home – I was here. Soon to be alone, in the busy capital city of a foreign country. I had to pray that Maureen knew someone who’d take me in for a week, because I knew nobody in Ireland, not a soul…

I dropped my fork as I realised that wasn’t entirely true. When Mum was in her early twenties, she’d befriended an Irish girl called Eilish, whose granny owned a farm on the west coast. When they’d grown tired of working for other people and being paid next to nothing for it, they’d moved onto the old farm, living in the ancient stone cottage, clearing out the stables, buying a handful of ponies at the sales and starting up their own riding school and trekking centre. Mum’s tales of her days spent at Lonloughry on the wild Connemara coast were the stuff of my childhood fantasies. As a kid, I’d listened to her stories of half-broke ponies and bold hunters, had peered at blurred photographs of her cantering along windswept beaches, holding a team of matched grey Connemara ponies, jumping them at regional shows and out on the mud-soaked hunt field. They’d been starting to make a success of the place when my grandfather had got sick, and Mum had returned home to see him before he died. And then she’d met my dad, and fallen pregnant with me, and all of her plans had evaporated into nothing more than faded memories.

But as far as I knew, Eilish was still at Lonloughry, schooling ponies and leading rides across the rolling Connemara hillsides. Mum always used to talk about going over to visit her, but we’d never had the money, and slowly the dream had faded into just that. But maybe I finally had a chance to walk the path my mother had walked when she was only a few years older than me, on her big overseas adventure. For the first time since we’d left New Zealand, I felt a sliver of hope that this trip might not be a complete disaster after all.

“There might…I might have somewhere I can go,” I told Sonya.

“Perfect. See, I knew it’d work out,” she said, as though the word might hadn’t been part of my sentence.

As our plates were cleared and dessert ordered, I let my mind wander, trying to imagine myself at Lonloughry. I let the daydream wash over me, picturing windswept hills covered in purple heather, narrow country roads lined with mossy stone walls, skittish black-faced sheep and crying gulls overhead. I could almost feel the swing of a pony’s stride beneath me, could almost see the shape of its ears, the flip of its forelock, the brightness in its eager eyes as we strode towards the grey Irish sea.

My pleasant daydream was interrupted by Lily, who had pulled her phone out to take a photo of her dessert for her Instagram – as if anyone cared – let out an excited gasp and almost dropped her phone into her tiramisu.

“The Summer Pony Championships are on at Cavan this weekend!” she cried, staring at her parents. “It’s not far from here, either. Can we go? Please? There’s bound to be some brilliant ponies there.”

Something finally clicked into place in my head, and I looked up. “Are you buying a new pony?”

“We’re certainly looking,” Hugh said smugly, sticking his tiny fork into the world’s smallest chocolate brownie, which had cost almost twenty euro and was the size of a button. “There’s certainly a wider range of top calibre ponies here than there is back home.”

That was probably true, but you also didn’t need a top European pony to win back home. There were plenty of ponies already in New Zealand that were more than capable of jumping Pony Grand Prix, with the right training and the right rider. I wanted to tell him that, and to remind him about Stacey Winchester’s family, who had spent a crazy amount of money importing a pony from England a couple of years ago, only for it to just about kill her every time she took it into the ring. Literally.

But the Christiansons still thought that money could buy success in this sport. Which it could, up to a point. They just didn’t realise that while they hadn’t reached that point yet, eventually they would. It was only a matter of time.

When we finally got back to our room, I used the hotel phone to put a collect call through to my mum. She was predictably shocked by the turn of events, and demanded to speak to Sonya about it. Since Sonya had wisely taken herself off to the pool for a swim with Lily, I handed the phone over to Hugh, allowing him to explain. I expected him to be as rude to her as he had been to me, but like most adults, he was completely two-faced about it, apologising profusely for getting their wires crossed while laying the blame for the “miscommunication” at his absent wife’s feet. All of which was clearly lies, but when he eventually handed the phone back to me, Mum had been won over. She just said that it was a shame, but couldn’t be helped, and that she’d try to get hold of Eilish and would call me back later with a plan.

I hung up the phone, and stared at it, a lump building in my throat. Somehow I’d managed not to sob down the phone as soon as I’d heard my mother’s voice, though it had been a near thing. But something inside me kept telling me that I had to keep it together. If I started crying now, I didn’t know if I’d be able to stop.

 * * *

I woke early the next morning, and lay in bed for a while, staring at the dark room and listening to Lily’s soft breathing. At least she didn’t snore. One small mercy. With no phone to scroll through, I got up and spent a while sitting by the window, staring down at the cobbled street below and watching the world go by.

I pressed my forehead against the cold glass and looked down at the passers-by, so wrapped up in their own lives, wondering if it ever occurred to them to look up at the windows of the grand hotel and wonder if anyone was staring down at them.

“Girls, are you up?” Sonya flung the door open and stuck her head into the room as Lily rolled over onto her back with a groan. “If we’re going to Cavan today, we’d better get a move on.”

The Christiansons started their days the same way they did most things, with a brisk efficiency that made me feel hopelessly disorganised. In just over an hour, we’d showered and dressed, eaten breakfast in the hotel dining room, picked up a rental car and were whizzing towards Cavan Equestrian Centre, an hour-and-a-half from Dublin. Lily was scrolling through her phone, looking for ads for suitable ponies that were competing at the event, and Sonya was dutifully ringing up to find out which classes they were jumping in, and organising times to try them out afterwards. I crossed my legs and picked at a loose thread on the knee of my jeans, trying not to stare enviously at Lily’s pristine breeches, custom-made tall boots, and designer polo, making her look like an advert for junior rider fashion in one of those posh equestrian magazines that AJ and I always made fun of, because the models usually looked like they didn’t know one end of the horse from another, and the photographers seemed to care more about taking a good photo of the model than the horse, which was always annoying. Didn’t they know that equestrians were always going to look at the horses first, and the riders second?

I shifted awkwardly on the leather seats. I’d always thought it would be fun to experience life in the lap of luxury, but I hadn’t realised how uncomfortable and out of place it would make me feel, to be surrounded by opulence I would never be able to afford.

Sonya’s phone rang, and she fumbled through her large purse to find it, then answered with a chirpy phone voice.

“Hello, Sonya Christianson speaking,” she said, like she was a receptionist for a law firm instead of someone answering their own phone. “Oh, hello Deb. How’d you get on?”

My ears had pricked up at my mother’s name, and I leaned forward, holding out a hand towards Sonya’s phone. She frowned, shifting in her seat to be further away from me, and carried on her conversation as though I wasn’t even there.

“Oh, lovely. That’s perfect. Ten o’clock tomorrow, was it? We’ll make sure she doesn’t miss it. I’m sure she’ll have a lovely time, and we’re so sorry about the mix up, but I’m sure it’s turned out for the best.”

She laughed again, said “yes absolutely” a couple of times, and then bid my mother farewell, and hung up. “It’s all sorted,” she told me, turning slightly in her seat to look at me. “You’ll catch the bus to Clifden tomorrow, and your mother’s friend Eliza will pick you up.”

“Eilish,” I corrected her. “Her name’s Eilish. And I’d’ve preferred to talk to my mum about it myself.”

Sonya looked surprised. “There wasn’t any need for that, was there? She told me the details, and besides, you wouldn’t want her to rack up a huge phone bill just to make small talk with you.”

I ground my teeth together, fighting the urge to scream at her with the more sensible knowledge that I still had to spend another twelve hours in this family’s company, and twelve hours was a long time when you had nowhere else to go.

The equestrian centre at Cavan was enormous, especially by New Zealand standards. There were three indoor arenas, a surfaced outdoor and four grass arenas, plus miles of stabling and truck parking, not to mention its very own restaurant and bar. I wanted to take a moment to just stop and take it all in, but the Christiansons were on the move, and the last thing I wanted was to get lost, since they’d probably consider it good riddance if I did, and would likely head back to Dublin without me without a second thought.

We made it to the biggest indoor arena just as the 148cm Pony Championship was getting underway. Unlike back home, where ponies of any size could compete in Pony Grand Prix, classes over here were typically split into divisions based on the height of the pony. The 148cm ponies were those up to 14.2hh, and consequently jumped the biggest fences, but even the 12.2hh ponies were expected to jump at least up to a metre-ten at the big events here, something that nobody back home would even consider attempting on such small ponies.

We found seats in the stadium, and watched as the ponies came into the ring one by one and jumped around the big, imposing course. It was only slightly higher than the classes I was used to jumping at home, but we rarely jumped indoors, so we had heaps more room to get around the turns. Here, even the first fence was only a few strides off the wall, and if your pony wasn’t well on its hocks the whole way around, you couldn’t hope to jump clear. There were one or two riders that still hadn’t quite learned that, and some of the riding wasn’t the prettiest, but most of it was effective nonetheless.

Of course, Lily and her parents couldn’t resist loudly commenting on their perceived shortcomings of some of the competitors. I slumped down in my seat, trying to look like I wasn’t with them as they prissily refused to clap for a solidly-built boy who’d had to give his pinto pony a couple of good whip taps to get it in front of his leg early on, but had gone on to jump a clear round, while loudly praising a girl with feeble equitation, who’d been good at posing in the saddle but had fallen apart when her pony refused at the triple bar, sobbing her way out of the ring after getting eliminated.

“Poor girl,” Lily said sadly. “And she rode so well!”

“Her pony was miles behind her leg,” I snapped, forgetting my resolve to pretend not to know them. “It had no energy to take it forward, and no choice but to stop.”

“I suppose you think she should have smacked it, like that boy did earlier on,” Sonya said primly, raising a haughty eyebrow.

“He went clear,” I shrugged. “Sometimes it’s kinder to be a bit mean on the way to the fence, so that they’ve got enough power to do their job properly when they get there.”

Sonya sniffed. “Fortunately, not all of us consider whacking our ponies to be good riding, regardless of whether or not it results in a clear round.”

I looked around for a wall to bash my head against, but there were none close enough. I’d assumed that as soon as I was around horses, my homesickness would go away, but if anything it was only getting worse.

At least, it was until a black pony with an arched neck and bright eyes came into the arena at an impulsive, high-stepping trot. His dark coat gleamed with good health, his mane was neatly trimmed and his tail flowed behind him like spun silk. The dark haired girl riding him was smaller even than Lily, her legs barely extending below the flap of her well-worn saddle, but she sat beautifully, and with an easy confidence that I immediately envied and admired.

“That’s an impressive looking pony,” Hugh said, his voice rich with admiration, and I crossed my fingers that the girl on the black pony was too smart or too wealthy to even consider selling him. If Lily ended up bringing a pony like that home, I’d probably have to kill myself.

“Our next combination in this class will be Keeley O’Callaghan from County Wexford, riding Deacon O’Callaghan’s The Dark Knight.”

My jaw dropped in amazement. Deacon O’Callaghan was one of the best show jumpers to have come out of Ireland in the past decade, and a few years ago, he’d gone seriously close to winning individual gold at the Olympic Games. Mum had let me stay up past midnight to watch the final rounds, and both of us had been crossing our fingers for Deacon to win. I think Mum’d had a bit of a crush on him, while I’d fallen in love with his big chestnut mare, Castletown Shamrock. She wasn’t as flashy or quite as scopey as some of the other horses, but she’d cleared every fence, in round after round, and had become something of a crowd favourite. The final jump-off had been going well too, up until the second to last fence, when she’d slipped on the turn and taken the rail, costing her country a medal. I’d watched in disappointment as Deacon shook his head ruefully before finishing his round, then had patted his horse all the way out of the ring. His good horsemanship in the face of extreme disappointment was something that Mum and I still talked about. When I messed something up at a big show and was mad at myself, Mum would just bump me on the knee and tell me that I wasn’t at the Olympics, reminding me of the scale of my disappointment.

I’d never realised that he had a daughter. No doubt her life was the stuff that dreams were made of – stables full of Grand Prix horses, touring Europe since she was knee high, going to all the biggest shows, riding the most brilliant ponies. I watched as she touched the black pony into a bounding canter, her eyes fixed firmly on the first fence. Her position was flawless – back straight, arms supple, heels down and eyes up, every line perfect. Of course, she’d have had her father coaching her from the moment she first sat in a saddle. It would be impossible to ride badly if your father was an Olympian.

The Dark Knight fought for his head, but Keeley kept him firmly in hand until they reached the first jump. His hooves thudded against the arena sand as he took off, and I heard Hugh make a small choking sound next to me. The black pony’s technique was far from conventional – he jumped with his head in the air, his back hollow and all four legs tucked up underneath him – but he left some serious daylight between himself and the poles. He landed well past the back rail of the wide oxer, all four legs touching down the ground almost at the same time. I winced involuntarily at what must have been a jarring landing, but Keeley appeared completely unfazed by it. She rode the distance beautifully to the next fence, finding the perfect take-off spot once again, keeping her back straight and letting her hands go forward slightly as her pony bounded over the big vertical. Her lower leg didn’t move an inch, and I shook my head in admiration. I dreamed of riding like that, and I wasn’t sure if it was inspiring or confidence-shattering to see such a young rider making it look so easy.

The black pony was excitable, clever and full of sass. He bucked his way around the corner, flinging his hind legs out behind him with blatant disregard for the spectators lining the sides of the arena, several of whom shrank back in alarm. Keeley was unfazed, riding firmly to the exact distances she wanted, ignoring her pony’s shenanigans, which only increased as he continued around the course.

Then Sonya spoke, her voice cutting through the trance I was in and returning me to the reality of knowing that I was sitting with the stupidest people in this entire building.

“I think we’ll pass on that one,” she said disparagingly. “I can’t see you on a pony like that, can you, Lil?”

As if Lily would be able to stay on him for more than five seconds before getting tossed off like a rag doll, I thought, then bit my tongue to stop myself from saying something I’d regret.

“She’s a really good rider though,” Lily opined, which was the first sensible thing she’d said all day.

“Bit hard not to be, with a father like hers,” I commented as the pony flew over the oxer right in front of us, close enough to smell the sweat on his coat, to glimpse the veins popping under his skin, to see the look of fierce concentration on Keeley’s face.

Lily turned to me, surprised. “Who’s her father?”

Seriously? I fought back the urge to roll my eyes. “Well, since her last name’s O’Callaghan and she’s riding Deacon O’Callaghan’s pony, I’m assuming that he is,” I said, reaching for my phone to Google it and check, then remembering, yet again, that I couldn’t.

Sonya glanced across at me. “And who’s Deacon O’Callaghan, when he’s at home?”

“Oh, nobody,” I told her. “Just a top international show jumper and former Olympian. Only one of the best riders in this country, and probably Europe as well. No-one important.”

“All right, no need to be so snippy,” Sonya said. “We don’t keep up with the international scene as much as you do.”

Clearly, I thought, but did not say aloud, which I thought showed progress. I was feeling quite proud of myself until Sonya spoke again.

“His daughter looks about Lily’s age. I wonder if they have any ponies for sale,” she mused, clearly inspired by the thought of being able to parade Lily around at home on not only a European show jumping pony, but one that had come straight from an Olympian’s yard.

Before I could say anything, a girl with long red hair who was sitting in front of me turned around and looked at us. “They do, as a matter of fact. A brilliant chestnut pony that won the individual gold at the Europeans a couple of years ago,” she said. “Deadly in a jump-off, so it is, but not an easy ride.”

“As long as it’s not as crazy as that one,” Hugh said, pointing at the black pony as he flung himself through the treble, landing so far out from each fence that he could barely fit in a single stride before taking off again, but somehow leaving all the fences up. He celebrated with a series of victory bucks as the girl in front of us shook her head.

“It doesn’t buck,” she assured them. “It’s just fierce hot. Keeley had it on the entry for this class, last I checked. It was well down the order, but if you stick around, you’ll see it go.”

Sonya looked pleased, and Lily bounced excitedly in her seat as Hugh sighed.

“They’ll be wanting the world for it, I expect,” he said, although I didn’t think that would stop him buying it if he thought Lily would win every class she ever entered on it.

“I couldn’t tell you,” the girl said. “Not being in a position to consider it myself.”

“Would you, though?” Sonya asked. “If you had the money?”

“Oh, in a heartbeat,” she said, getting to her feet. “It’s a brilliant pony, so it is. One of the best on the international circuit, if you ask me.”

She walked away, and the Christiansons all beamed at each other as Keeley finished with a clear round and rode towards the exit. The crowd applauded as she met a tall blonde man at the gate, and with an excited jolt, I recognised Deacon O’Callaghan. He said something to his daughter as she rode past him, then gave the pony’s rounded quarters a pat as he jogged back out into the collecting ring. The next rider came into the ring and the O’Callaghans disappeared from view.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Hugh decided that there was no time like the present to go and talk to them, so he stood up and pushed past me, even though the row behind us was basically empty and he could have just climbed over his seat and walked along there. I hoped the O’Callaghans would tell him where to get off, or that their pony would turn out to be too expensive for him, but I had a sinking suspicion that the Christiansons had a bottomless pit of money – or that they would re-mortgage their house if necessary to fund a European gold medal winning pony for their darling daughter. One or the other seemed inevitable, and I sighed, a green cloud of envy settling over me once again. Why was everyone else’s life so much more thrilling than mine?

Hugh was back in a matter of minutes, assuring us that he’d spoken to Deacon and secured the chance for Lily to try their pony that evening. When Keeley eventually returned to the ring on a blindingly gorgeous chestnut pony, I knew that no matter what the price, the Christiansons would move heaven and earth to bring this one home with them. His name was Enoch Arden, and he was short-coupled with a dishy blaze and tall white stockings. His jump was super, all snappy knees and arched back and super back end, but I still liked the black pony better. There had been something about his sublime confidence in his own ability that had made me ache to know how it felt to ride him over a fence. The chestnut pony had classically correct technique, but he looked slightly overwhelmed by the indoor arena, hesitating into the combinations and needing lots of leg through the turns. He didn’t look to me like he’d won gold medals all across Europe, but Lily and her parents were so blinded by his good looks that they didn’t notice any of that, and I said nothing, knowing any criticism would fall on deaf ears anyway. The pony had four faults at the triple bar, keeping him out of the jump-off, but Keeley patted him all the way out of the ring, seeming proud of him rather than disappointed by his effort.

The fences were raised, and I waited impatiently to watch The Dark Knight’s return to the ring, sure that he’d be the one to win the class. He bounded back in with as much enthusiasm as he’d had in the first round, but his exuberance was his undoing when he over-jumped into the double and took the rail at the out. The boy on the pinto won the class, with the chunky bay second, and a pretty steel grey finishing third.

As if to rub salt into my wounds, Sonya decided that it was time to peruse the trade stalls. I would’ve have been excited by a shopping trip if I’d been able to afford to buy literally anything other than a hoofpick, but naturally they only went into the most expensive shops. I quickly got bored of watching Lily try on blingy European helmets with horrifying price tags, so I wandered over to a rack of gorgeous show jackets and rifled through them, trying to pretend that I had enough money to buy one. I fell in love with a gorgeous bright red jacket with black trim, and couldn’t stop myself from checking the price, almost passing out when I saw that it cost nearly a thousand euro. That wasn’t only outside of my price range, but out of the price range of anyone who had any sense at all. I mean, why would you spend that much money on a jacket that your horse was only going to slobber on in about five minutes anyway? But there was a mirror right there, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to try it on. Just for a second. Just to see how it looked.

Of course, it fit me like a glove, which only made me sadder that I could never in a thousand years afford to buy it. I turned sideways in the mirror, making the most of this brief moment of pretend, conjuring up the rest of my dream outfit in my head – snow white breeches with sequinned pockets, custom tall boots made of Italian leather, and one of those expensive helmets I’d seen around but never been able to afford because they started at six hundred dollars and Mum didn’t think that was a worthwhile price in case I ever fell off in it and she had to buy another one. Imaginary rich me had one of those helmets. She also had an indoor arena and a string of talented, rideable warmbloods and a father who rode internationally and trained her every day and took her to Europe to win prestigious pony classes and ride on her national team…

Then Sonya came over and ruined everything by saying that jacket was a nice colour, and made me take it off, and her daughter try it on. I wandered away, sick with envy, and hung around by the front of the store until they came out with a large carrier bag. I couldn’t bring myself to ask what was in it, and Lily didn’t volunteer the information. All I knew was that if Lily ever turned up to a show wearing that red jacket, I was going to scratch my own eyes out in a fit of jealous rage.

 

Chapter 4 – Dan

It should have been fun, and exciting, to be at a big international show like this one, but I couldn’t remember a day at a show ever dragging on so slowly. As the light faded slowly into dusk, I found myself standing in a small indoor arena, leaning against a jump stand and watching Lily trot circles on the chunky bright bay pony that had been second in the championship that morning, while Sonya gushed to the owners about how brilliant Lily was, and Hugh silently videoed his daughter, and the people selling the pony no doubt tried to keep themselves from throwing up from all the pretentiousness. What they didn’t know was that Lily was only trying their pony as a warm-up for riding the O’Callaghans’ chestnut, although when I’d asked Sonya if she was wasting these people’s time, she’d simply said that there was nothing stopping them from buying more than one pony. Which had not cheered me up at all.

Lily pressed the bay pony into a canter, and he moved on willingly. He had a kind expression and seemed to be a straightforward enough ride that Lily was getting along well with him. I sighed with boredom, my hand slipping into my pocket in a futile search for my phone. It still wasn’t there. I was surprised how hard it was to live without it. I’d known it would be an adjustment, but I had never expected the lack of a phone to be so difficult. Somehow, I was going to have to find a way to buy a new one.

A brief gust of cooler air made the hairs on my arms stand up, and I turned to see the gate swung open and a tall boy about my age walked into the arena, leading a powerful chestnut pony. Her gleaming copper coat shimmered under the arena lights, and she held her elegant head high, looking around suspiciously as he latched the gate behind them. Now here was a pony that looked like she could jump around a Grand Prix course without even trying.

The pony snorted, and Sonya turned around and noticed the boy. She nudged her husband’s arm questioningly, but Hugh just glanced over his shoulder and shook his head, then returned his attention to filming Lily.

Unwilling to tear her eyes away from her precious daughter for more than a few seconds, Sonya turned to me for the first time since Lily had been legged into the bay pony’s saddle.

“I don’t know who he is, but tell him we’ve rented the arena for the evening,” she told me. “He’ll have to exercise his pony somewhere else.”

I rolled my eyes as she turned her back on me again, and I straightened up, relieved at least to know that the pony wasn’t another of darling Lily’s prospects. I wasn’t sure I could stomach the thought of her on such a spectacular animal, especially since I could already tell she wouldn’t be able to ride it.

I walked towards the boy and his pony, trying to figure out how to politely ask him to leave. He’d stopped a few feet away, and was tightening the mare’s girth with one hand, his helmet dangling loosely from the fingertips of the other. As I approached, I started noticing things. His saddle was an older model with suede knee rolls and a shiny, well-worn flat seat. His tan breeches had a slobber stain across one thigh, his boots were cracked and dusty, and there was a rip in the shoulder of his faded green windbreaker. There was nothing flash about him except his pony, but she was enough to catch anyone’s eye. She flattened her ears as he pulled up the girth straps, and he gave her a gentle pat on the neck before turning around and smiling at me.

Okay, woah. Suddenly I wasn’t paying nearly so much attention to the pony, because her owner was giving her a run for her money in the looks department. He was tall, with thick brown hair hanging over dark eyebrows, a straight nose, strong cheekbones and friendly brown eyes flecked with green. He also handled the spirited mare with a calm confidence, and I had to make a genuine effort to pull myself together, and not just stop in front of him and drool unintelligibly.

“Hello,” he said, holding his hand out for me to shake. “Dan Caldwell.”

I shook Dan’s hand, immediately able to tell from its callouses and slightly rough skin that he was no part-time rider, nor did he have grooms that did all the work for him. I was in serious danger of forgetting Phil entirely.

“I’m Katy,” I added belatedly. “Katy O’Reilly.”

“That’s an Irish name,” he commented, raising his eyebrows. “But you’re not from around here, are you?”

“No,” I admitted. “We’re from New Zealand, over here for the Youth Nations Cup competition.”

“Ah, right.” His pony pawed the ground impatiently, and he shook his head at her. “All right Pops, enough of that,” he gently chided. “Sorry. She’s not the most patient beast that ever lived.”

“She’s stunning,” I said honestly.

“She’s been a good pony for me, but is sadly much outgrown these days,” he said, his eyes travelling past me and lingering on Lily as she trotted down the long side of the arena. “I’m assuming you’re not the one looking for a new pony, are you?”

I shook my head. “Sadly, no. Shipping a pony to the other side of the world is a little beyond my parents’ budget.”

Dan smiled. “Yeah, mine too.” He watched Lily ride the pony past us down the long side of the arena. “That’s Rockford Maverick, is it not?”

I shrugged. “I’ve got no idea,” I admitted. “I suppose it could be.” Sonya turned around and glared at us, and I remembered my orders. “Oh, I’m supposed to tell you that my teammates over there have hired this arena exclusively for the next hour, so…”

Dan raised an eyebrow, his attention returning to me. “Are you telling me to leave?”

I quickly shook my head. “I am not telling you anything,” I assured him. “Just passing on a message.” I lowered my voice. “Feel free to ignore it.”

He laughed. “The thing is, I’m here because I was told that these people are looking for a class pony and that they had money to burn, so I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring, so to speak. But if you don’t think they’d be interested, I won’t waste my time.”

I looked at the fidgety chestnut dubiously. I didn’t want Dan to leave, but I seriously doubted that his pony was going to be suitable for Lily.

“She does look like she’ll be a bit much for her,” I said honestly. “Contrary to her parents’ belief, Lily’s not exactly the next Bertram Allen.”

“Pops isn’t a novice ride,” Dan replied. “She’ll jump anything you point her at, though, so long as you can sit still and let her get on with it.”

“I bet she would,” I said, casting an envious eye over the pony. Oh, to have parents as rich as Lily’s who would buy me any pony I wanted. This was the one I’d be looking at, not the ordinary bay pony Lily was wasting time on right now. “How old is she?”

“Rising ten. I bought her at auction three years ago as an unbroken six-year-old. She’s always been sensitive, and gave me a hard time for a while, but came around in the end. Unfortunately just as we started to really get somewhere, I grew several inches and now she has to be sold to someone whose feet don’t hang down around her knees.”

“That sucks,” I commiserated. “I hate selling ponies. You’d think you’d get used to it after a while, but the special ones are always hard to part with.”

He nodded. “Pops is special, all right. I thought for a while that my sister would take her on, but she’s got her hands full with her own team and let’s just say they never quite clicked. Pops knows who she likes and who she doesn’t,” he told me. “She’s a woman of refined taste.”

“Aren’t we all?” I reached up and gently scratched the mare under her forelock. She leaned into my touch, tilting her head to help me find the itchiest spot.

Dan smiled. “I think she likes you.”

“Not as much as I like her, I’m sure,” I replied.

Then Sonya decided to ruin the moment by striding towards us with a fake smile plastered on her face.

“Can we help you?” she asked him, ignoring me entirely.

Dan looked startled for a moment, then nodded, explaining that he’d brought Pops along as a prospective purchase. Sonya ran her eyes over the mare, and even a novice like her could tell that she was something special.

“She looks nice. Did we see her jump this morning?” she asked, proving her boundless capacity for gross understatement by standing in front of one of the best looking ponies I’d ever seen in my life and describing her as nice.

“No. As you can see, I’m far too tall for her myself, so my sister rides her now, but she was busy with her other ponies today,” Dan explained. “But Pops is a top pony for a competitive rider, so long as they know what they’re doing. She’s won loads of championship classes, both here and abroad, and she’s already qualified for Dublin this season.”

“I see. Well, she could be a good prospect for us, but your timing’s not so good,” Sonya told him. “We’ve got another one turning up any minute that we’re very interested in, and we won’t have time to try both. But thanks for thinking of us.” She shot him another brilliantly insincere smile, turned and walked back to her daughter

Dan gave me a bewildered look, and I rolled my eyes. “See what I have to put up with?”

“You have my sympathy,” he said sincerely. “Where’s the rest of your team?”

“Scattered to the four winds. It’s a long story, I don’t want to bore you.”

He smiled, and a dimple appeared in his left cheek. “I’m sure you wouldn’t.” I swallowed hard, trying to maintain my composure in the face of his impossible beauty, but he spoke again before I had to. “Trouble is, this pony’s been in a stable all day waiting for someone to exercise her, and we’ve got a long journey ahead of us. If she doesn’t get worked now, she’ll kick the walls of the horsebox in and Mum will lose her mind the whole way home.”

“Don’t let them stop you,” I told him. “There’s plenty of room to share. And you might still get your shot at impressing them into being interested in buying her.”

“Maybe. But she’s not too pushed on me riding her now, with my legs dangling around her sides, bumping her forelegs with my toes.” Then he looked at me, and speculation lit in his eyes. “What about you? Fancy a ride?”

I just blinked at him in abject disbelief. “Me?”

“Why not?” His eyes sparkled, daring me to accept his challenge. “It’s what you came to Ireland to do, is it not?”

“Well, yeah.” I looked down at my jeans and paddock boots, then back up at him. “But I’m not really dressed for it.”

Dan shrugged. “Sure our Pops won’t care,” he said. “Go on. It’ll give me a chance to check out the competition. See what our Irish team will be up against in the Nations Cup.”

Then he winked at me, and my knees actually went weak. Don’t you dare swoon. People outside of historical romance novels do not literally swoon, I told myself firmly. But I couldn’t help it. The more I talked to Dan, the more attracted to him I became. And now he was standing in front of me, offering me a ride on his spectacular pony. Am I dreaming? I fought the urge to pinch myself as I reached out and took Pops’s reins from his hands.

“That’s the spirit, now,” Dan said approvingly, handing me his helmet. “Better put this on too, just in case. Can’t have your team accusing me of sabotage.”

Our hands touched as I took the helmet from him, and a jolt like electricity ran down my spine. You. Have. A. Boyfriend, I reminded myself, thinking frantically of Phil. But he was so far away, and besides, I could hardly help having a crush on Dan, standing there all gorgeous and friendly, with his beautiful pony and his kind eyes and friendly banter. Besides, I’d probably never see him again after today. I had to seize the moment and take what enjoyment I could out of this trip, since god knew it had been pretty dire so far.

“Your head must be bigger than it looks,” Dan teased, placing his hand on top of the helmet and wiggling it around to make sure that it was reasonably snug. “That’ll do. Will I give you a leg-up?”

I nodded, and his hand wrapped around my knee, making the skin beneath it tingle. Pops sidled away from me, and I shortened the reins and hopped closer to her side, my hands resting atop the hard saddle.

“Ready? On three,” Dan said.

“One, two, tree,” I counted aloud, mimicking his accent, and heard Dan’s chuckle as he boosted me onto his pony’s back. My feet reached for the stirrups, but they were miles too short. “You must ride very short,” I teased him.

“That would be my sister, she’s a proper midget,” he agreed, nudging my foot out of the stirrup and pulling down on the leather to adjust it. “Fair play to her though, she’s only twelve.”

“And if there’s one thing I’ve learned today, it’s that there are some pretty impressive young riders in this country,” I told him. “We saw Deacon O’Callaghan’s daughter in the 148 class this morning, and man, can she ride!”

Dan looked up at me, amusement dancing across his face, and I realised how silly it sounded to be gushing over a kid.

“Aye, she’s not bad for a kid,” he said casually, stepping back as I finished adjusting Pops’s offside stirrup with fumbling hands. “That black pony she rides has the devil in him though, and no mistake.”

“I liked him,” I said, leaping to the black pony’s defence as Dan rolled his eyes. “The pony they’re waiting to try is one of hers,” I added with a nod in the Christiansons’ direction. “A chestnut pony. We watched it jump this morning.”

“Is that so?” he asked. “What’d you think of it?”

I shrugged. “They liked it more than I did. He’s got a super technique, no doubt about that, but he looked a bit unsure of himself and wasn’t always taking her to the fences.”

“I’d agree with that,” he said as I touched his pony into a walk.

Any thoughts of Keeley O’Callaghan were quickly dismissed from my mind as I focused on the pony under me. Pops had a long stride, high head carriage and a mouth as soft as butter. Dan was right that she was sensitive – the slightest movement from me elicited a reaction from her, and I had to work hard to keep my body soft and my aids clear and consistent. But after a few circles, Pops’s head gradually lowered, and she began to bend properly through her body, lifting her back as her trot changed from a stiff, hurried pace into a swinging, athletic stride. I closed my fingers around the reins, asking her to seek the contact forward, and she softened her jaw willingly into my hand.

“She likes you,” Dan said approvingly, and I grinned at him.

“She’s lovely,” I replied. “She’s so responsive, but so light. I’ve never ridden anything quite like her.”

He smiled proudly. “She’s one of a kind, that’s for sure. Give her a canter, tell us what you think.”

I shortened my reins before brushing my outside leg behind the girth a fraction. Pops bounded forward into a powerful, ground-covering canter, the kind of canter that could take you down to a metre-forty oxer without a shadow of doubt that you’d make it to the other side. I eyed the warm-up fences speculatively, wondering if I’d be allowed to jump her. Lily had the jumps set at about a metre-twenty, but they looked tiny from here, minuscule, insignificant in the extreme. A metre-twenty would be child’s play for this pony.

I steadied Pops back to a walk, giving her a moment to catch her breath, then touched her back into a canter straight from walk. She shifted gaits as smoothly as if trot didn’t even exist.

“She’s like a high-powered sports car,” I commented to Dan. “Like I’m driving a Ferrari or something. She’s got such power behind hair-trigger reaction times.”

“Formula One,” Dan suggested, and I nodded.

“Yes. Exactly.”

I’d got the hang of how to collect Pops now, and grinned broadly as her stride compressed, coiling herself tighter and tighter together until she was almost cantering on the spot, with all that incredible power and balance still coming through the light contact on the reins. Dan must have put some serious schooling into this mare over the last three years, and my admiration for him only increased.

I said as much to him, but he just shrugged humbly. “Had a bit of help from my step-father. He knows a thing or two about producing horses.”

As I turned Pops across the arena and rode a fluid flying change, I caught sight of Lily standing next to her parents and watching me with interest. The owners of the bay pony were leading him towards the exit, and I glanced at the gate, expecting to see Keeley and her father, but there was no-one there. I wondered if someone had warned her about Lily, or whether the pony had already been sold before the Christiansons got their chance at him. The thought of that gave me a moment of pleasure that was swiftly extinguished by the sound of Sonya’s voice.

“We’ve got time to try that pony that Katy’s riding, while we wait for Keeley to arrive,” she said. “What do you think, Lily?”

I looked across at Dan, who was watching Lily and her parents approaching. I drew Pops back to a walk and stroked her glossy neck, wishing I’d had a chance to jump her. But it looked like my luck had just run out.

“I’ve got to head away shortly,” Dan was telling the Christiansons. “So you’ll have to be quick if you want to try her.”

Hugh scoffed dismissively. “If you’re serious about selling her, we’ll expect to take all the time we need,” he told Dan. “And it looks like Katy’s already warmed her up, so Lily can get straight on and start jumping, which is what we’re really here to do.”

Dan’s frown deepened, and he looked over at me. “Sure you don’t want Katy to take her over a fence or two first?”

“Why?” Hugh demanded. “We’re here to buy a pony for Lily, not for her.”

Funny, I’d thought we were here for the Nations Cup. I wanted so badly to say it out loud, but I bit my tongue.

Dan looked at me, his expression conflicted. “She does have to be sold,” he admitted, and I slid reluctantly to the ground.

“She’s very sensitive,” I warned Lily as Dan legged her into the saddle. “So you’ll have to pay attention, and be incredibly still with your hands.”

Lily nodded as her parents came up behind us. Sonya overheard my final comment and started prattling on about how Lily had the most beautiful quiet hands of any rider ever in the history of equitation, everyone said so, and that she’d ridden sensitive ponies before because all of hers were very well-schooled. She’s never ridden a pony like this, I wanted to say, but with a force of will I bit my tongue. They’d find out soon enough.

Dan and I stood together and watched as Lily trotted and cantered a couple of slightly uncontrolled circles on Pops. The mare was tossing her head against Lily’s hold on the reins and rolling her eyes expressively at Dan, as though asking why she was expected to put up with this. I heard him sigh as he shifted his weight, then his elbow was lightly touching mine and I couldn’t concentrate properly on the pony anymore.

“What do you think, darling?” Sonya asked her daughter, who was puffing slightly as she brought Pops back to a walk.

“She’s really strong,” Lily said breathlessly, and I shot a look at Dan, who had pitched his eyebrows skyward at the comment. I pressed my elbow more solidly against his in empathy, and he returned the pressure. Butterflies started exploding in my stomach and I swallowed hard, trying to focus.

“Would you like to try jumping her?” Hugh asked his daughter, and Lily nodded, although she looked slightly apprehensive at the prospect.

“Okay.”

Dan looked over at the handful of jumps set at the other end of the arena. “Just take her over any of those,” he said. “She’ll be grand.”

“I think you’d be better to start with a crossbar,” Sonya said, clearly still under some kind of illusion that Dan didn’t really know what he was talking about.

“The thing is, she’s not much of a jumper over a low fence,” Dan explained to them as we trailed behind Lily’s parents on our way towards the practice jumps. “She prefers a bit of height to back her off, like, or she has a tendency to rush.”

“I’m sure Lily can keep her under control,” Hugh said confidently. “What’s the use of buying a pony that can’t jump a crossbar, for god’s sake?”

He went to help his wife adjust the fence, while Dan crossed his arms over his chest and said nothing. They set one fence as a low cross, and another as a medium sized vertical. The big oxer they left, presumably for once Lily was warmed up. Or in hospital, I thought to myself as Lily picked up a canter that looked like she’d intended it to be a trot.

“How do you think she’ll go?” I asked Dan. “Over, around or through?”

“She’ll always go over,” he said, sounding calmer than he looked. “But it may not be pretty.”

It wasn’t. Lily’s tight grip on the reins upset Pops, who responded by lifting her head and rushing forward. She took off half a stride early and cleared the low crossbar easily, then plunged her head down towards her knees and swung her neck from side to side, trying to tear the reins out of Lily’s hands.

Dan did his best to help, telling Lily just to sit quietly and soften her hand on approach next time, but somehow Lily interpreted that as ‘throw the reins away entirely three strides out from the fence’, which resulted in Pops ducking out at the last minute, then taking off at a gallop around the arena. Hugh was swearing as Lily managed to circle at the other end and regain some semblance of control, but she was focusing too much on her speed and not enough on her direction of travel, which proved to be her undoing.

Lily might not have realised that she had lined Pops up with the square oxer, but the pony did. She latched onto the big fence and her stride opened up as she sped towards it. Lily’s face was horrified, but instead of trying to turn away from the jump, like a sensible person riding an out of control pony would’ve done, she pulled back on the reins, attempting to halt rather than turn. Objecting to the pressure, Pops yanked hard against her, tearing the reins out of Lily’s grasp, then took two massive strides and leapt over the jump. I stared in breathless admiration as she flew over the wide oxer, her knees tucked tight to her chest on the way up, back arched like a dolphin over the top, hind legs kicking out behind her as she started her descent. She was every bit as talented as I’d thought she would be, and I had no doubt that this was a truly international class pony – and far, far too much for Lily.

To Lily’s credit, she managed to stay on over the jump, but lost a stirrup on landing and struggled to regain control without it as Pops shot off at a gallop again. I’d wanted nothing more than to see the kid get taken down a peg or two, but when I caught a glimpse of her panicked expression as Pops barrelled past, still out of control, I did feel a bit sorry for her. Not nearly as sorry as I did for Pops though, whose nostrils were flared red as she raced past, the whites of her eyes showing.

“Woah, girl. Woah now, lass. Easy, Pops.”

Dan’s voice cut through the thudding of the pony’s hooves, and she slowed down a bit, her ears swivelling in recognition of his voice. Lily was little more than a passenger, and Pops evidently decided that she was better off to ignore her rider entirely and just listen to Dan. She veered towards him, and he reached up and took hold of her rein, running alongside her for a few strides before gradually drawing the pony down to a jittery walk. He looked up at Lily, who was white as a sheet.

“You all right?”

“Is this some kind of joke?” Hugh demanded, storming towards his daughter, who was sitting shakily on the pony, her hands resting on the mare’s withers. I watched Pops’s skin twitch under her touch, and Lily sat up and lifted her hands away, which was the first intelligent thing she’d done all day.

“I’m not finding it funny, myself,” Dan said as he stroked Pops’s sweaty neck.

“You obviously didn’t get the message that we’re looking for a pony that has been properly trained,” Sonya snapped, because god forbid anyone have a conversation she wasn’t involved in.

“I can assure you that Pops has had plenty of schooling,” Dan replied, somehow managing to stay reasonably civil in the face of their incredible rudeness. “But as both Katy and I warned you, she needs an experienced rider, and I don’t think your daughter’s quite up to the mark.”

Highlighting Lily’s shortcomings was not the way to get a point across to Hugh. “I can’t see how it’s my daughter’s fault that your pony is a lunatic,” he snapped. “Lily, get off that pony before it tries to kill you again!”

Lily slid to the ground and walked shakily back to her mother, who pulled her in for a hug. Hugh shot me a filthy look, as if any of this was my fault, and I just watched sadly as Dan turned and started to lead his brilliant pony away from us. I realised I was still wearing his helmet, and quickly unsnapped the chinstrap and hurried after him to give it back. Then the arena gate swung open, and Deacon O’Callaghan walked in.

I stopped and stared at him for a moment, star-struck by his sudden appearance. My eyes searched the gate for a glimpse of Keeley and her chestnut pony, but there was no sign of them. Just Deacon, and I suddenly realised that he wasn’t looking at Lily, or at me. His eyes were fixed on Dan, who was walking right towards him.

Then Deacon spoke. “So, what’d they think of her?”

My heart thumped in a mix of exhilaration and embarrassment as the pieces slotted together.

My sister rides her now.

Fair play to her, she’s only twelve.

Had a bit of help from my step-father, he knows a thing or two about training horses.

Had Lily and her parents really accused a pony that had been trained by an Olympian of not being properly schooled? Could such a brilliant thing be possible?

It could. It was. I was breathless.

“Didn’t like her,” Dan was telling Deacon as I approached, running a hand through my sweaty hair and hoping I didn’t look too dishevelled. “Said they’re looking for something with a bit more training.”

Deacon swung his head around and looked at me, and I froze like a deer caught in headlights, under the scrutiny of his glare.

“Is that right?” he demanded of me, his blue eyes flashing, and I realised that he, too, had mistaken me for Lily.

I shook my head, still struck dumb by his presence, but fortunately Dan spoke up on my behalf. “No, Katy managed her beautifully. But she’s not the one with the money,” he explained, smiling at me as he took the helmet back from my outstretched hand. “Unfortunately.”

Deacon had shifted his gaze towards Lily and her parents, who were standing in a huddle behind me and looking mortified. I was practically rubbing my hands together with gleeful anticipation of Deacon giving them the verbal smackdown of the century, but unfortunately, he was far too professional for that.

“I’m sorry that you feel that way, but I can assure you that all of this mare’s training has been done under my supervision. Pops is a double European gold medal winner, but she’s not a novice ride.”

Double European gold. And I’d ridden her. I wished then, more than ever, that I’d had a chance to jump her myself, and it took everything I had not to leap back into the saddle right then and there. I waited breathlessly to hear Sonya’s reaction to her daughter being referred to as a novice, but I was about to get my second big surprise of the night. In the face of Deacon’s celebrity status, mother dearest went a full one-eighty and threw her precious daughter straight under the bus.

“Of course she’s obviously a very talented pony,” she gushed. “Unfortunately Lily just isn’t ready yet for a pony of her calibre. She has come a long way in a short time, but she still has a lot to learn.”

Lily was staring at her mother as though she’d just poured boiling water over her head, and even Hugh was looking a bit scandalised.

“Then I suggest you limit the ponies you’re looking at to ones your daughter is capable of riding,” Deacon said, which was fair, if a little blunt. It was certainly too blunt for Hugh, who opened his mouth to offer rebuttal, but before he could speak, Deacon turned aside. “We’re running late, and your mother will skin me alive if she’s not on the road before dark. Go on and get Pops loaded.”

“All right.” Dan looked at me again and smiled warmly. “It was nice meeting you, Katy. Good luck for the rest of your trip.”

“You too,” I said quickly, feeling the heat rise to my cheeks as I stumbled over my words. “I mean, it was nice meeting you too.” I scrambled for something else to say. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”

Dan nodded. “I’m counting on it,” he said, his eyes twinkling under the arena lights before he turned and led his pony out into the darkness.

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