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Loving Spirit, Book One
By Linda Chapman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2010 Linda Chapman
All rights reserved.
The estate car chugged along the steep, narrow lane, its green paint hidden beneath layers of mud. Ellie Carrington sat in the front, her feet jostling for space with old drink cans, empty sandwich packets, a grooming brush with hardly any bristles left and a frayed red headcollar. She hugged her arms over her chest and stared out of the window at the hilly countryside they were driving through.
Falling-down stone walls divided the fields, topped with loose strands of barbed wire. Many of the fields were bare and empty. In others, sheep grazed the short grass, their fleeces a dirty gray-brown color, their backs turned against the wind. In the fields lower down the mountains, a few shaggy cattle were grazing.
I hate it, thought Ellie bleakly, looking at the snow-capped peaks to her left. I hate it here.
An image of the lush meadows and the rolling hills of her home in New Zealand filled her mind. Not home. Her gray-blue eyes prickled as the thought slammed into her. Not any more.
She stared fixedly out of the window and began to wind a strand of her long, wavy blonde hair around her index finger, counting in her head with each turn. By the time she reached seven, the band of hair was beginning to cut off the feeling in her finger, but thankfully the tears had started to sink down inside her again and she was back to just feeling numb. Numb was good. It was better than hurting. In the last six months she'd learned lots of little ways like that to stop herself crying.
The day her life had changed seemed both like yesterday but also a lifetime away. She'd been at the stables where she kept her pony, Abbey, and where her mother kept her three horses. She'd been there with her best friend, Rachel. Ellie's parents had gone away for the weekend together, so she'd arranged to stay with Rachel that night. But from the moment Rachel's mother had arrived at the yard, much earlier than arranged, Ellie had known that something was wrong. She knew she would never forget the words Rachel's mother had said: Ellie, honey. There's been an accident ...
She had gone on to explain how a truck had skidded across the road that Ellie's mom and dad were driving along. Their car had been hit and they had both died instantly.
Ellie could barely remember the months following. They were just a blur, moving out of her house, selling the horses, the discussions over where she should live. Her dad had been English, and had an older brother, Len, who lived in England still. Her mother was an only child from New Zealand. At first, Ellie went to live a short distance away with her New Zealand grandma, but she was old and not very well. A month ago her grandma had fallen and needed a serious hip operation, and it had been decided that Ellie would move to England to live with Len at the start of the next year.
"It'll be the best thing for you, sweetheart," her grandma had said. "You'll be with your uncle and cousin—Joe's sixteen, only a year and a half older than you, and you'll be living on a horse farm. Your uncle shows horses and ponies. Think how much you'll like that."
Ellie had loved horses ever since she could remember, but even the thought of living with horses wasn't enough to persuade her. "I don't care. I don't want to go to England. I want to stay here with you. I can help look after you, Gran. Don't send me away," she'd begged.
She'd heard the unhappiness in her grandma's voice.
"The doctor says I'll be in hospital for a long while and then a nursing home. You have to go, Ellie. I'm sorry."
None of Ellie's arguments had made the slightest difference. Her grandmother and the other people in charge of her parents' will had decided it was best that she went to live in England. She was fourteen and had no power to change their minds.
So here I am, Ellie thought, staring desolately out of the window.
She thought of Abbey, her pony, who had been sold, and a lump started to form in her throat. They had found a good home for the mare with two young girls—really she had become too small for Ellie in the last year and would have had to be sold anyway, but Ellie had thought she would get another pony. Now she had nothing. Just herself and her suitcases.
She looked across at her Uncle Len. His face was lined and weather-beaten, his hair cut so short he almost looked bald. His eyes were the same gray-blue as Ellie's, but they were hard. He hadn't said much to her when he'd collected her at the airport, just looked her up and down as she came through customs with the flight attendant who had been looking after her. "You got here all right then?" he'd said in his gruff accent.
Ellie hadn't really known what to say to that. It wasn't a proper question. Of course she'd got there, otherwise she wouldn't be standing in front of him. Desperately miserable, she'd just nodded.
"Car's this way." He'd signed the flight attendant's forms, taken the handle of her trolley and then set off towards the car park.
The flight attendant had called goodbye. Ellie thanked her and then hurried after her uncle.
She studied him now across the car. She had never heard much about Uncle Len; she just knew that her dad, who had been four years younger, had never really got on with him. They had written once a year at Christmas, but otherwise hadn't kept in touch and never visited each other. Her dad had gone to college, become a vet and then moved to New Zealand, whereas her uncle had left school as soon as he could, gone to work at a racing yard and now had his own stables in north Derbyshire near to where they had both grown up. The only thing the two of them seemed to have in common was that they had both chosen to work with animals. Looking at her uncle's set face, Ellie felt glad that he wasn't more like her dad; it would have been much harder to be with him if she was reminded of Dad all the time. She missed both her parents so intensely—her energetic, bubbly mother who had been a kindergarten teacher, and her quieter, more thoughtful father. She had often traveled around with him as he had done his vet rounds, seeing the animals, helping out. She stopped her thoughts there as the tears threatened again.
Len seemed to sense her gaze and glanced across. Ellie dropped her eyes to her lap. But now eye contact had been made, the silence suddenly seemed to fill the car.
"How ... how many horses do you have?" she asked, to break it.
"Twenty-nine on the yard, some liveries, some mine," he answered. "You ride, don't you?"
"Then you'll ride the smaller ponies for me," he said. "You're a good size for them."
"Ponies?" Ellie echoed.
"Four-legged creatures, head at one end, tail at the other, hay goes in, muck comes out."
Ellie's cheeks colored. From some people the comment might have been a joke, but her uncle didn't seem the joking sort.
"You'll have to make yourself useful if you're staying with me," he went on. "You'll work just like everyone else. You'll ride the ponies in the shows and when we have buyers around, and then you'll work on the yard like we all do."
Ellie disliked the tone of his voice, but she had no energy to fight right then. She just wanted to be left alone. She shrugged, wrapping her arms tighter around herself.
Her uncle turned his gaze back to the road.
After another twenty minutes of driving through small villages with gray stone houses, the road twisted around a corner and began to head downwards again. There was a town just visible in the valley below. Len pointed across the fields to the left where there was an old farmhouse nestling beneath a ridge of bare-branched trees on the mountainside. "That's it," he said. "That's your new home."
Ellie swallowed at the word as her eyes took in the farmhouse. It was three stories high. There was a large courtyard of stables and two big horse barns with stalls inside. Behind the barns the land had been leveled and there was an outdoor all-weather ring and a field with bright jumps in, the only splash of color on the green and gray landscape. She could see horses and ponies grazing on the hillsides, wearing waterproof rugs and hoods over their necks.
Len turned the car down a bumpy lane with a white and black sign saying High Peak Stables. As the car jolted over the rough pot-holed surface, Ellie looked at the house looming ahead and shivered. It looked very lonely.
The drive ended in a tarmacked parking area with two horseboxes, a trailer, a motorcycle and a few cars. There was a smaller outdoor school at the end of it. A dark bay pony with a white star was being trotted around. His ears were pricked and his eyes soft. The boy who was riding looked too big for the pony, but he was slimly built and he rode lightly. Sitting down in the saddle, he moved the pony into a flowing canter.
Despite her unhappiness, Ellie couldn't help but catch her breath. The pony reminded her slightly of Abbey, who had been a dark bay with a white star too. "That pony's gorgeous," she murmured.
Her uncle nodded briefly as he parked the car. "That's Picasso. He's only six but he took every novice 143-centimeter working hunter pony class he entered last year and went Champion at the BSPS Summer Champs. Got his Horse of the Year show ticket first time out and took third place there in October." His eyes narrowed appreciatively. "Not bad for a pony picked up for £500 as a four-year-old."
Ellie didn't know what half of what her uncle had just said meant, but she didn't really care. She wasn't interested in what the pony had won; she was just captivated by its beauty and grace.
Her uncle got out and Ellie opened her door. The cold wind whipped her tangled hair away from her face. The boy cantered to the fence and slowed the pony to an easy halt. Pushing her hands into the pockets of her fleece jacket, Ellie followed her uncle over.
"He's going all right." Her uncle gave a satisfied nod.
The boy looked relieved.
"This is your cousin, Ellie," Len told him.
"Hi, Ellie." The boy's hair was sandy brown, his eyes dark greeny-gray. "I'm Joe."
His smile was warm and Ellie felt a rush of relief.
"Hi," she said.
"How long was your flight then?" Joe asked her.
"You must be whacked."
"She wasn't flying the plane herself, Joe," Len said abruptly. "She was probably asleep most of it. Go on now, get working that pony again. Where's Luke?"
"He's in the wash-barn, clipping." Joe smiled at Ellie. "I'll catch you later," he said, moving the pony on.
"Right, lass, come and see around." Len strode back up the car park and on to the large rectangular courtyard, which had ten spacious loose boxes, arranged on two sides. The third side had a tackroom, a rug room and a wash-stall, and the fourth side was the wall of a large airy barn. Everywhere was immaculate. Ellie gazed around at the horses who were looking out over their doors. They were all beautiful—grays, bays, chestnuts.
"The main show horses have stables here," said Len, pointing around the courtyard. "The barn at the side there has the livery and younger horses, and the barn further up towards the ring is for the ponies. There're three foaling boxes around the back too." A man in his forties with a bald head pushed a wheelbarrow across the yard. "That's Stuart, ex-jockey," Len went on. "He's been my yard manager now for ten years. You'll meet the other grooms later—Helen and Sasha—and you'll mind you do what they say."
Ellie bristled slightly at his tone, but just then a tall boy who looked about eighteen came to the open door of the wash-stall. He had a pair of electric clippers in one hand and his jeans were covered with horsehair. A sandy terrier-type dog bounced around his heels, chewing at his boots.
"That's Luke," said Len, walking towards him.
Ellie wondered who Luke was. Maybe he was another groom? His dark hair was slightly long and there was a swagger to his step. As she and Len reached him, Luke's deep-blue eyes swept over Ellie assessingly and she felt something tighten inside her. Though he hadn't even spoken yet, she felt a prickle of dislike. The dog came trotting over to her and Ellie bent down to pat it.
"Luke, this is Ellie," Len said.
Ellie glanced up and met Luke's appraising gaze.
"I thought she was supposed to be fourteen," he said to Len.
"Just small for her age," Len replied. "Useful, though. Means she can ride the fourteen-handers—and exercise the smaller ponies."
"Yeah, guess there's that," agreed Luke. "Now Joe's not such a midget we need someone else. So she can ride then?"
Ellie stared at both of them. They were talking about her as if she wasn't there! "Yes, actually, I can ride," she put in before Len could speak. She could feel her temper rising, breaking through her numbness. "I've ridden since I was three. I had my own pony, you know."
"Oh." Luke raised his eyebrows. "So you're the expert then? I'll know who to come to if I want any advice." His eyes mocked her.
Ellie glared at him.
"Did you see to the kittens then?" Len asked him.
"Not yet. They're in here still," Luke said, breaking eye contact with Ellie and jerking a thumb behind him.
"Kittens!" Ellie hurried to the door. She loved cats almost as much as ponies. There were some bales of straw inside, and in a pile of loose straw in the corner was a black mother cat with three very tiny baby kittens, their heads looking comically big compared to their small black bodies. "They're so cute," she breathed as she watched the kittens padding around and feeding from the mother. "Can I pick one up?" she asked Len eagerly.
"No," he replied. "We'll get your stuff in from the car. See to them, Luke."
Ellie followed her uncle silently back to the car. The cases were heavy, but Len carried one in each hand easily over to the house while Ellie carried her rucksack and hand-luggage bag.
The house was very old, with white windows that held little rectangular panes of glass. Yellow lichen was growing on some of the stone. Inside, there were no flowers or plants, no pictures on the walls; the only photos or ornaments were of horses. The kitchen was large with a quarry-tiled floor, a pine table and a bay window. It was clean but bare, apart from the clutter of horse and motorcycle magazines on the window seat, and a television. There was a lounge leading off it, containing a threadbare sofa with no cushions, a couple of armchairs and another, even bigger, television. The hallway was empty apart from a mirror and a wooden staircase with a ragged carpet runner. It had the feeling of a house lived in just by men. But then that's what it is, Ellie reminded herself. She knew that Len had got divorced eight years ago. There was only him and Joe here now.
There were three bedrooms on the first floor. But Len didn't stop. He continued up another flight of stairs.
"You'll be up here," he told her.
Ellie shivered as they reached the second floor. There was a feeling of damp in the air. Len showed her into a cold room that had a single bed with a white cover, an old dark wardrobe and a dark chest of drawers with a round mirror on top of it, and an empty black fireplace. It was like something from a history book.
"This is my room?" Ellie said uncertainly.
Len nodded. "Bathroom's down the corridor. I'll leave you to unpack. Come down when you're done."
He walked back down the stairs. For a moment, Ellie just stood there, her eyes taking in the strange room, and then desolation broke through her defenses. She had lost everything and now she had to live here, like this. She started to cry, covering her face with her hands, her body shaking, but trying not to make a sound. The last thing she wanted was for her Uncle Len to hear and come back. From the little she had seen of him, she was sure she would get no sympathy at all.
At last the storm of tears dried up. Taking several deep breaths, and aching with loneliness, Ellie went to the bathroom. It had a cold linoleum floor, a plain white bath, a sink and toilet, a plastic bath mat and a shower attached to the bath. It was completely bare, with just a single old gray towel to soften it.
At least I don't have to share it with anyone else, she thought, splashing freezing water from the cold tap over her face and trying to be positive. Maybe I can make it look good. I could buy things. Do it up. She had money. Before she'd left New Zealand, her grandma had made sure she had some in case she needed to buy anything.
Excerpted from Loving Spirit by Linda Chapman. Copyright © 2010 Linda Chapman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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