Free Sample of The Final Straight

The Final Straight by Charlotte Howard - 500

ISBN: 9781311748546
ASIN: B00SW7GE26

Blurb:

April Miller works for her bestfriend, Max Knight on his livery and competition yard. Their friendship has withstood many turbulent times, and while April is deeply in love with Max, she is also aware of his womanising ways and has refused to succumb to his flirtatious charms. When her ex, AJ, suddenly comes back with a business proposal, April finds herself torn between the two men.

Chapter One

September 1999

April put her weight into the saddle, squeezing on the reins as the horse beneath her hopped from hoof to hoof. She swallowed the nervous lump that had built in her throat as she watched the next competitor race over the line and towards the first jump.

Reaching down, she stroked the horse’s chestnut coat, giving him a gentle pat on his neck and hushed him. He whinnied in reply, blowing out a snort of white froth. He was new to this game, but she could already tell that they’d bought a winner.

She ground her back teeth together as the next rider was called to the starting point. It wouldn’t be long before her name was announced over the loudspeakers. She was glad that the wind had picked up and that the night’s drizzle had softened the ground a little, but the heat was bordering on unbearable.

“Steady, Blaze,” she murmured as the horse reacted to the sound of hooves thundering down the track. His ears pricked, twisting and turning to the different noises. People chattering, yelling and whooping, cameras clicking, horses calling out to each other. “Steady,” she said again as he shifted and tried to spin around.

She rocked her head from side to side as sweat dripped down her neck. Her skullcap was tight over the mass of red curls that had been pinned into place. The padded body protector added to her discomfort.

“No protector, no ride,” said a voice.

April looked down to see Max beside her leg, stroking at the horse’s shoulder.

“I know, I know,” she mumbled, wriggling her shoulders against the wretched thing. She was shoved to the side as Max thrust his hand under the girth.

“Christ almighty April.” He forced her leg forward, lifted the flap of the saddle and pulled on the straps. “Are you trying to fall off?”

“I would have tightened them,” she complained, tugging at the neckline of her shirt. “It’s too hot.” She could feel the pale skin of her arms beginning to turn red.

“Think about how he feels with you sat on his back,” Max countered, dipping his hands in a bucket of water before rubbing at the horse’s muzzle. It was all right for Max, with his natural light olive complexion; he tanned easily and didn’t worry about burning.

“Charming.”

“Are you sure you even put your hat on properly?” He grabbed her arm and tugged her down to his level to look at it, then studied every bit of her with his dark eyes. It was the same dance they performed before every competition. He’d worry about her falling and injuring herself, she’d stress about refusals. But he was worse before a cross-country event. Everything had to be perfect.

“You can still pull out. If you think he’s not ready.” He bent down and checked the horse’s boots.

“He’s ready.”

“Have you been weighed?”

“Would I be sat on him if I hadn’t?” she snapped. “Yes,” she said, softening her tone. “Checks done and vet approved.”

Max had laughed when she’d first brought Blaze onto the yard. He was a far cry from any of the horses they usually took on, but one go around their cross-country course, and even Max had to agree that there was a degree of talent beneath the mangy coat.

He didn’t look anything like that nag now. Clipped and groomed, his coat glistened in the bright light, reflecting even the smallest of rays as they peeked through the hazel, chestnut and poplar trees scattered around them.

“April Miller on Willow Trees’ Blazing Glory!” The voice boomed out across the fields.

“You’re up,” Max said, patting her leg. “Good luck. I’ll get you a pint in later if you win.”

“So generous,” she said, squeezing her legs. Blaze hopped into a trot.

He fidgeted at the starting point, so much so that she could barely concentrate on anything that was being said to her. She circled him around, shortening the reins and tensing her calves against him, ready to burst into canter as soon as they were let go.

“She’s off!” Max called as she leaned forward and raced over the starting line.

Blaze thundered down the grassy path. White ropes kept spectators out of their way as they headed for the jump. It was an easy one; a simple brush that Blaze popped over as if it wasn’t there. They twisted around the first bend, leaping over the log oxer.

She was aware of flashes of colour passing as they rushed down the trail. The wind beat at her face and she heard cheers rise from the crowd as they cleared the table. She tried to not let the cockiness take over. That was when mistakes were made.

Urging the gelding on, they came towards the water jump. Blaze slowed, his pace gathered together. He lifted his head up and she pressed him forward.

“Come on boy,” she said, giving him the reins.

He leapt. Water splashed around them, drenching her arms and legs. Flecks of mud spattered over her jodhpurs as he picked his hooves up, knees overly bent as he made his way to the other side.

“Good boy,” she said, giving him a quick pat on the neck before taking the reins back. The horse jumped up the bank. He halted for a few hesitant moments at the top of the hill. The drop was steep, and if they jumped too soon he would stumble, and they’d both end in a messy pile at the bottom.

April closed her eyes and leaned back. This was the obstacle she dreaded, that most eventers dreaded. She gave him a couple more inches. He trod carefully, testing the ground before retreating.

“Come on,” she urged through gritted teeth. “Please don’t refuse…”

She felt his body buck. His front hooves left the ground and snapped back down. The ground slid away. April felt herself tumbling forward before she had a chance to correct it. Her shoulder came level with his. Her chin connected with something solid. The stirrup caught around her ankle, the rubber band refusing to give way. It was as if the world had fallen into slow motion.

She closed her eyes. Her shoulder hit the pommel of the saddle. A scream ripped through her. She could feel and hear the muscles tearing as she twisted beneath the horse’s hooves. Something cracked against her ribs. Something else hit her head.

Instinct told her to curl up. She was still in the foetal position when Max reached her.

“I’m okay,” she wheezed. Each breath was more painful than the last.

“No, you’re not,” she heard him say. Fingers fumbled around her. The straps were released and so were her lungs. She grabbed at the precious air, snatching it, sucking it in. She reached out, searching for Max. When she found him, she clung to him.

“Blaze?”

“He’s back at the stable. They caught him,” Max assured her. She couldn’t see his face. She blinked, trying to focus, but everything was a muddy blur.

“Paramedics are here,” called a voice she didn’t recognise. Hands pressed down on her, and she found herself lying on the ground. She couldn’t move.

“Max!”

“I’m here.” He gripped her hand.

Her helmet was removed. Pinpoints of light flashed. Pain seared through her, burning every single piece of muscle and sinew that stretched from her elbow to her shoulder.

“Dislocation,” said someone. “Any allergies?”

“No,” Max said, wrapping both hands around her fingers.

She felt someone grab her shoulder and elbow, applying gentle pressure that, oddly, helped to ease the pain. Something was thrust on her face. It smelled of plastic and the gas they pumped into it was sweet and sickly.

“Sharp scratch,” said a woman.

Warmth flooded her veins. She was aware of voices, of movement, but very little else as the world began to spin and faded in and out.

A-Z of Romance: X is for the missing chromosome (slightly sexist post)

So a bit of a stretch, but I couldn’t think of anything for ‘X’. Have you ever looked in the ‘X’ part of the dictionary? There’s not much there…

Of course by “missing chromosome” I’m talking about men. (Biology lesson for those who don’t know: Women are made up of XX chromosomes, men are XY.) I’ve come to the conclusion (as have many of my female friends) that this missing chromosome is the reason why some men have difficulties in understanding, listening, and being compassionate. I know that sounds sexist, but let’s face it – it’s the truth.

I’m no expert, but I’ve had a fair few relationships, have a lot of male friends, and my husband does describe our relationship as “being married to a man with boobs”, so when it comes to understanding how men think, I’m pretty sure I’ve got it covered!

Hints and Tips

Men don’t do subtlety. For four years I said things like: “I’d love to have somewhere to put my ornaments”, slowly moving up to: “I’d love to have some shelves up”. After four years I changed to: “Put some goddamn shelves up”. That worked. My point is that if you want an early night, don’t tell a man that’s what you want. You have to be blunt. If you want sex – tell him. Then he’s likely to respond and you won’t feel ignored. Unless he’s on the X-Box, then you have no hope. You could walk in front of him wearing absolutely nothing and he wouldn’t get it.

So stop putting hints and tips about the place and getting pissy when he doesn’t do anything about it. It’s not his fault – it’s the missing chromosome.

Cuddles and Kisses

I’m 99% sure that all things romantic are held in the X chromosome, which is why (and there are exceptions to the rule) 99% of men are half as romantic as women. So when he turns up with a wilted bunch of carnations instead of a dozen red roses, don’t hate him, be grateful that he got you flowers at all – at least he’s tapping into the romantic part of his brain.

When it comes to cuddles and kisses, most men will automatically think it’s leading to sex even when it’s not. Don’t blame him, blame the chromosome and remember that men have two brains and it’s not the one in his skull that does the thinking.

Remembering Dates

All things relationship and memory are held in the X chromosome, so again most men are at a disadvantage since they only have one. I have been victim of a forgotten birthday, forgotten anniversary, and forgotten other special dates, so you have my complete sympathy if it has happened to you. And while I am still bitter and angry, I strive to remember that it’s not his fault – it’s that damn chromosome.

That missing chromosome has a lot to answer for.

DISCLAIMER: Not all men are the same, not all men behave the way I’m about to describe, so don’t tar all of them with my brush. This is purely on experience. I’m sure there are men out there who are not affected by this missing chromosome.

A-Z of Romance: V is for Valentines All the Time

Sorry it’s a day late – I got mixed up with the Easter Bank Holiday… Anyhoo…

Bit of a ranty, anti-romance blog today because, V is for Valentines All the Time. Why? Because Valentine Day comes once a year, and that seems to be the “let off the hook day”. Let me explain:

Once a year – one day out of 365 – partners around the world are forgiven for a year of forgetting birthdays and anniversaries. They are forgiven for being lazy and ungrateful. IN FACT they are REWARDED for it. We accept their flowers and chocolates and “I love you really”s, giving them 364 get out of jail free cards. I’m the worst for it – I don’t even expect a candlelit dinner without children. I go out of my way to cook a lovely meal (usually steak), and let my hubby have an XBox night. Well no more! Valentines should be All. The. Time. We should expect our partners to take 50% of the responsibility for the relationship and give 50% back. It goes without saying that we should also do the same. We shouldn’t expect our other halves to come home with a bunch of flowers, we should shower them with love on occasion as well.

So why the rant? Because it was Easter this weekend – and the Easter bunny forgot me until I produced an egg for him. This brought up a whole load of other arguments – like that he forgot my birthday last year. Never forgiven, and never forgotten. Okay, so later on, after he’d been reminded of which day it was, I got a laptop. And on Sunday, he went out and scoured the supermarkets while I took our daughter swimming, and came home with a beautiful egg, but too little too late. I don’t want apology gifts. I want recognition at the time! I want to be woken up on my birthday with a cup of tea. I want to wake up to “Happy Anniversary”. I want breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day. Like he gets. (Okay, Father’s Day for him, but you get the picture.) I’ll forgive him for the anniversary lapse this year – I remembered, but I didn’t get him anything either.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful – I am grateful, and thankful, for everything. I love him more than I can describe, but he infuriates me. And come Valentine’s Day, a day he does remember because of the amount of commercialism surrounding it, I will forgive him for a year’s worth of relationship sins. BUT (and it’s a big but) I would rather he didn’t forget any special date. I’d rather it was Valentines All the Time.

**Awaits the flaming to begin**

A-Z of Romance: U is for Under Pressure (**insert sad face**)

How many of you feel pressured to be romantic? I’d say most of you. If you’re naturally lovey-dovey, an expert at reading body language / minds, or have an ever-increasing bank account, then being romantic probably isn’t such a problem for you. Personally, when it comes to the ‘R’ word, I struggle. I know that sounds daft coming from a romance writer, but let’s face it – neither of my books are exactly mushy with HEAs (Happily Ever After), and before Seven Dirty Words & Four Letter Words, I wrote dark poetry and murder mysteries, so I’m not sure “romance” really covers what I write. Nevertheless, it is what category the books fall into.

If you ask my husband, he’ll tell you it’s like being married to a man with boobs. I’m not sure if this is a compliment or not, but it’s true. Even my two best-friends (who are both female) and I refer to our weekends away / nights out as “lads nights”. I’m rubbish with hints (give it to me straight, or not at all). I’m no good at being ladylike. My housewifery skills leave a lot to be desired. I’m allergic to high-pollinating flowers (although I’ll take the chocolate), and my idea of a romantic night is going to the cinema to see the latest James Bond / Hobbit / anything action-y film, followed by curry. So when it comes to being feminine and romantic, I do feel incredibly  under pressure.

happiness2

There’s a lot out there that tells us what romance is, and it all contradicts each other. Just look at the types of book that fall under the romance category: Everything from Mills & Boon to Fifty Shades of Grey. Where do you fit? Nowhere? Everywhere? It’s all so confusing!

Personally, I think romance is what you make it. Do away with the constraints of commercialism, ignore what media says romance is, and just go with it. If you want flowers, chocolates, and being proposed to at the top of the Eiffel Tower – then find someone who will do that for you. If you want to get married whilst bungee jumping – do it! Shrug off the pressure, and to be honest if you’re other half is the one putting the pressure on and you feel uncomfortable then you need to do some serious talking and decide whether you are truly suited to each other.

A-Z of Romance: T is for Time after Time

Romance once in a while is nice, especially when it’s spontaneous and surprising, but romance time after time is better. I’m not talking about smothering your partner in cuddles and kisses, I’m talking about romantic meals out, nights on the sofa, talking openly, and just generally showing each other how much you care.

You don’t have to shower them in expensive gifts, but a cup of tea in bed, a home-cooked meal, and a child-free night can all  be seen as romantic. All you need to do is remind each other of why you got together in the first place, remind each other of why you’re still together, and you’ve hit romance on the metaphorical head.

holding hands

Make once a month “Date Night”. This is quite common amongst couples, although we often forget to put that night aside. How many times have you said to your other half: “Let’s go out on payday?” And then payday comes around, and so does something else. Date Night gets cancelled. Again. Make a point of planning it – okay so there’s nothing spontaneous or exciting about that, but at least then you know you have one day or evening a month when you can do something as a couple.

Make Date Night different every month as well – go to the cinema one month, then out for a meal the next. Go for a walk in the local park, and then change it up to a takeaway in front of the telly. Keep it interesting, keep it fresh, and keep it alive.