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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.