Friday 15 November 2013
Escape Publishing Birthday Book Excerpt & Giveaway - Riding on Air by Maggie Gilbert
What can you do when your own hands are the enemy? Hold on tight, for as long as it takes.
Melissa has secrets. Sure it’s pretty obvious she has Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, but no one knows how bad it is or how many pills she takes for the pain. She’s determined to make her horse Jinx into a champion and she dreams that her childhood friend William will one day see her, rather than her condition.
So when William asks her out and Jinx is shortlisted for selection in an elite training program, it seems Melissa’s dreams have come true. But when her secrets are exposed, all those dreams come crashing down around her. Can William ever forgive her? And can she learn about letting go in time to truly ride on air when it matters most?
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The reins whipped through my cramping, useless hands, the buckle catching my swollen knuckles with a see‐you‐later smack that was really going to hurt. After I was done with falling off, of course.
The ground rushed to meet me and despite a defensive tuck—perfected by practice—I hit with a thud that slammed me breathless. Molten‐pain firecrackers went off in the joints of my shoulders, knees, hips and elbows as I hammered into the sun‐baked pasture of the pony club’s cross‐country course. There was grit in my mouth and dirt puffing up around me in a dusty cloud. But my stupid traitor hands were at least safely curled against my chest. Not too bad, considering. Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis: the gift that keeps on giving.
Something brushed past my face, more dirt speckling my skin. I blinked grittily, getting a blurred image of a swishing black tail and departing hooves. My horse Jinx, giving an excited buck as he exited the scene at speed, was leaving me literally in his dust.
My cramped lungs expanded again and my eyes cleared as oxygen poured back into me. But oh crap, how that made it hurt. I started the post‐fall post‐mortem: I could see, think, wriggle my toes and my fingers (cautiously) and my skull was apparently uncracked.
Initial impact estimates suggested bruised to broken on the hardness scale. I’d had worse. I sipped in another cautious breath and lay still, with my throbbing hands held carefully against my chest just in case whoever had been following me on their horse towards the jump had somehow missed me taking a dive over Jinx’s shoulder and was still coming.
It wasn’t really Jinx’s fault. He’d just gone eagerly through the virtual bolt‐hole I’d left open for him when my crocked up hands quit as we cantered towards that jump. We’d come in too flat and too fast and he’d clipped the fixed top rail of the jump, made a stumbling landing on his nose from which he, athletic genius that he was, had spectacularly recovered, while I—nix the athletic, let alone the genius—had not.
“Melissa, God, are you OK?”
My instructor, Sally, was breathless. What little voice she had was thin and high. She was no doubt expecting to find me smashed like a pretzel at the bottom of the box.
“Mmm,” I said noncommittally. I thought I was OK. I wanted to be OK. But I wasn’t sure, not yet.
“Does anything hurt?”
I snorted. Stupid question from someone who should know better. And she did know. She’d known me since I was five, even before I was diagnosed.
“Hang on a minute,” I said. I lay there, waiting for the familiar ugly‐hot pain burn in my joints to die down enough for me to tell if I’d actually broken anything. All pain kind of blurs together when you’re so used to it. I breathed in and out, the strap of my helmet digging into my jaw.
I heard the murmuring commentary of the other kids and the explosive, impatient snort as one of their horses cleared its nostrils. In another life I might have been embarrassed to have fallen off; humiliated to be lying there with Sally hovering anxiously over me and the low drone of a quad bike growing steadily louder as it approached across the bumpy paddocks. But in this life, I was too relieved. I was too relieved that the pain was fading and the breath going more easily in and out of my lungs to care if the other kids thought I was hopeless. More than they already did, anyway; they think I’m weird because arthritis is supposed to be a Granny’s disease. If that wasn’t bad enough, I like dressage better than jumping and sporting. So I’ve got ugly hands and I do a sissy sport. Miss Popularity I’m not.
Mostly I was just relieved that this fall could be my get‐out‐of‐jumping‐free card. I’d come to pony club camp for the golden chance to have a dressage training session with Petra Hein, a Sydney‐based instructor formerly from Germany. Not only was she a champion international rider who’d been shortlisted for the Olympics, she was now the coach and head selector for the Australian National Junior Dressage Squad. I would kill to get into that squad. Petra has never come down here before and I doubt she will again anytime soon.
And Jinx and I don’t get up to Sydney very often. As in never.
But first, I had to survive the jumping, something Jinx is also very good at, but me, not so much. They like you to do all the different sports at camp, although the decision to do the jumping classes suddenly didn’t seem the best idea; the ground I’d just hammered into was really hard. We hadn’t had much rain lately so the ground was like rock—hard on horses’ legs and riders’ heads.
I lay on that hard ground a bit longer, blinking dust out of my eyes as the pain eased from knife‐stab to dull squeeze. There was pain, sure, but nothing unexpected. Nothing beyond the well‐known and unloved hot spots.
I knew I had to get up. Jinx was probably charging around the horse yards like a snorting galloping fool and I didn’t want him to damage himself. Or anyone else. Of course, thinking about getting up was one thing, but actually doing it wasn’t going to be that easy. It never was.
The quad bike rumbled to within a few feet of where I sprawled in the dirt and the engine cut off. A faint puff of dust and fuel‐scented air wafted over me and I wrinkled my nose against a sneeze. I might not have broken anything, but the last thing I wanted to do was aggravate all those waiting bruises.
“Is Melissa hurt?”
The back of my neck crawled. Maybe I could be mortified in this life after all. I should have known he’d be the one to come to my un‐rescue on his mechanical charger. I have that kind of luck. God, why didn’t you kill me in that fall?
His voice was coming closer. No, not God—William. If God is hanging out down here in the body of a teenage boy, I doubt he’s in William. More like Zac Efron, or maybe the guy from that vampire series. Although personally I don’t get what’s so hot about him.
A lanky body moved in to block the sun and I blinked my watering eyes at the sudden change in light.
“Really? Or are you just saying that?”
I blinked some more, still sun‐dazzled. Dazzled, anyway. William’s face came into focus, dark eyebrows frowning above narrowed lake‐blue eyes. Zac who?
My stomach drifted upwards, curled in on itself and flopped back down again as my mouth went dry, leaving my tongue glued in place. William could make me feel like a giddy fool from a distance of a hundred yards just by riding past with my stepbrothers at a polocrosse tournament. Up this close, not only had my spit dried up, my heart was fluttering around as if it had shaken loose inside me and I could no longer feel my feet. This was either a freaked out response to William, or I had a spinal injury that was only just now showing symptoms. Anxiously, I wriggled my toes again. They still worked, so it looked like the William effect rather than crushed vertebrae.
“Melissa? Are you sure you’re not hurt?” William crouched down beside me and I swallowed painfully, ridiculously aware of him. Of how close he was. I could see a patchy shadow of stubble under his jaw and the way his hair waved upwards beneath the brim of his Akubra. His long legs in dust‐pale jeans were only inches away. If I simply lifted my hand I reckoned I could touch him where the faded cotton of his shirt collar curled against the tanned skin of his throat. Working some moisture into my mouth, I licked my lips nervously
and tried to meet his eyes. My body seemed too big to fit into my skin.
“I’m OK.” I dredged my excuse for a brain for something witty. Nothing came to me. Typical. “I’m OK,” I said again.
William sat back on his haunches and stared at me, unblinking. I couldn’t meet his gaze for long. I had to take him in with brief, skipping glances. He must think I was an utter moron. Well, of course he did. He’d known me practically my whole life.
“Can’t get up, huh?” he asked me quietly. “Is it just your hands?”
I glanced at him again and then away, digging at my bottom lip with my teeth. Why did he have to see me like this? He was never going to see me as a real girl if he only ever saw me broken.
“Yes,” I admitted, resigned to the indignity of Sally using the radio to call for the waiting ambulance, of being fussed over by everyone until they finally did enough tests to work out I was as OK as I’d ever be. Still cursed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, but uninjured. Just wasting their time.
“If I take your arms, will it help? Or will it hurt you?”
“You better say so if it does hurt you,” he said, reaching for me.
As his big, strong hands slid around my pathetically‐skinny upper arms, I don’t think I could have uttered a word even if he was about to pull them right out of their sockets. That he was actually touching me seemed to have blown some kind of fuse in my brain. His palms were hot on my bare skin, like a brand.
“What are you doing?” Sally squeaked. “William, I don’t think you should be doing that.”
“It’s alright, Sal.” William looked into my eyes. “Ready?”
I nodded, I guess, because his fingers tightened and then he stood up from his crouch and lifted me with him. I swung up from the ground, rising as if I was a puppet and he had pulled my strings. But once I was upright the world slid away from me and I staggered against him.
“William!” Sally cried shrilly. He said “Steady!” but whether to me or to her, I didn’t know. He moved one hand from my arm to my back and pressed it firmly against me, as if he was afraid I’d fall, and as fast as it had gone funny, the world slid back to where it usually was. My throbbing hands were still tucked safely out of harm’s way and I was upright again. I let go of a breath I hadn’t even known I was holding.
“Melissa, look at me,” Sally said, coming close and peering into my eyes. “Let me see your pupils. Are you concussed?”
“I’m fine.” I eased back from her, a little freaked by the way she was shoving her face into mine. She ran her long, slender fingers through her expensively‐streaked blonde mane and I wondered if that was genuine concern or an artful attempt to catch William’s attention.
William barely glanced at her. Oh, be still my heart.
“OK?” he said to me.
“Yes. Thanks.” I concentrated on reassuring Sally, unable to meet William’s challenging stare. It was hard to hide things from him when he was looking at me like that, but I managed. I’d had plenty of practice at that, too.
Sally nodded doubtfully, even as she cast a sliding glance towards the others in her troop waiting with a mixture of boredom and impatience. Riders with their feet kicked out of the stirrups, one girl sneakily texting on her phone. The laid‐back horses rested their hind legs as they snoozed, ears flopping, while the more fiery ones sidled and fidgeted, throwing an occasional restless front leg forward to paw at the dirt. Cross country was a high point of camp for most of them. I’d never hear the end of it if the session was ruined because of me.
“Sally, really, I’m fine. I’ll go and get checked out, OK, just as soon as I find Jinx.”
“I don’t know,” Sally said, clearly torn between being shot of me so she could get on with things and fear of doing the wrong thing.
“I’ll be fine, Sally, I’ll walk slowly.” I ignored the dull ache now settling into the front of my skull. It was nothing to do with the fall; I nearly always ended up with a bit of a headache during long riding sessions in the heat. I longed to take my helmet off, but the hot throb in my knuckles warned me off even attempting the buckles.
“I’ll take her on the quad,” William offered and my stomach dived, twisted, backed up and finished off with a forward roll with half‐tuck.
Stop that, I cautioned myself, firmly squashing the hopeful quiver of my leaping heart. He’s just doing his job as a camp assistant. He’d never shown the slightest interest in me personally in all these years. Much as I wished it was different. Or wished that I could at least accept reality and just stop thinking about him. Stop hoping.
Yeah, you’d think I’d have worked out it was hopeless by now. But I couldn’t seem to cure myself of wanting him; all I could do was try to hide it.
“Oh, that would be great,” Sally said, flashing him a beaming smile. I suppressed a fresh wave of resentment for her gorgeous, streaky hair and curvy body. Her beautiful handmodel fingers, straight and slender, knuckles tiny and true. I know it’s weird, most people look at eyes and faces, but I notice hands the most.
The pounding in my head increased and I turned away, towards the waiting quad bike. I just wanted to get going. Now I was reasonably sure I hadn’t broken myself on impact I was swamped with worry about Jinx. I wanted to make sure he was OK. I wanted to take my helmet off before my brain squeezed out through my ears. I wanted to be as effortlessly flirtatious and pretty as Sally, who at 18 was the same age as William. Only two years older than me, though it seemed an impossible gap.
William caught up to me as I swung my leg over the sun‐warmed seat of the quad bike. When he hovered, obviously unsure again how to help without hurting me, I blinked back the treacherous sting of tears. I turned my face away and slid forward so William could climb on behind, the thrill at the thought of his arms going around me mostly killed by yet another reminder of what I wanted and couldn’t have.
Sally could keep her shiny hair and her eye‐popping cleavage. I didn’t actually want to look like her. I certainly didn’t want to be her. I just wanted to be me, still with my long, straight, dark brown hair and insignificant boobs, but without gnarled fingers and swollen joints. But I knew better than to let myself want it too badly. Because I also knew you don’t always get what you want.