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Authors: Fiona McCallum

Leap of Faith

Leap of Faith

Fiona
McCallum

www.harlequinbooks.com.au

Fiona McCallum spent her childhood years on the family cereal and wool farm outside the small town of Cleve on South Australia's Eyre Peninsula. While she now lives in Adelaide, she remains a country girl at heart. Fiona writes heart-warming journey of self-discovery stories that draw on her experiences, love of animals, and fascination with life in small communities. She is the author of six Australian bestsellers:
Paycheque
,
Nowhere Else
,
Wattle Creek
,
Saving Grace
,
Time Will Tell
and
Meant To Be
.
Leap of Faith
is her seventh novel.

More information about Fiona and her books can be found on her website at
www.fionamccallum.com
and she can be followed on Facebook at
www.facebook.com/fionamccallum.author

Also by Fiona McCallum

Paycheque

Nowhere Else

Wattle Creek

The Button Jar Series

Saving Grace

Time Will Tell

Meant To Be

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Sue, Annabel, Cristina, Michelle, and everyone at Harlequin Australia for turning my manuscripts into beautiful books, for all the wonderful support, and for continuing to make my dreams come true.

Huge thanks to Kylie Mason, editor extraordinaire, for the guiding hand and for being so easy to work with. This story really is so much better for her involvement.

Thank you to the media outlets, bloggers, reviewers, librarians, booksellers, and readers for all the wonderful support. To hear that my stories, which really are from the heart, are being so widely enjoyed is amazing.

Special thanks to Dr Meredith Frearson for very generously and patiently answering all of my medical questions. Any errors or inaccuracies are my own or due to taking creative liberties.

Finally, thanks to dear friends Carole and Ken Wetherby, Mel Sabeeney, Arlene Somerville, NEL, and WTC for all your love and support. I am truly blessed for having you in my life.

Please note: From 2007 the Adelaide International Horse Trials event has been called the Adelaide International Three Day Event and held in November. I have chosen to change some details relating to the event, including its name (it will always be the Adelaide International Horse Trials to me), date held and other details to better suit the purposes of my story, which is a work of fiction.

To all those who love and protect animals,
especially those who rescue, rehabilitate, and
provide them with a second chance.

Contents

Also by Fiona McCallum

Acknowledgements

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Epilogue

Chapter One

Jessica warmed Prince up just behind the starting line. She'd studied the plan well and walked the cross-country course twice today and three times the day before. She had all the twists and turns and best places to steer Prince into the fences memorised. He wasn't as light and quick on his feet as most eventers, so if she had any chance of capitalising on her good dressage score, she'd have to keep him to a tight line. Thankfully the course was dry – a damp, slippery track made for a treacherous, slower round.

Her first Adelaide International Horse Trials.
God, I'm nervous
, she thought,
a lot more than usual
. Her stomach was churning, trying to find food she hadn't eaten. Nothing new: she never ate until after the cross-country round. Her husband, Steve, often wondered why she put herself through all this. How much fun was it if she almost made herself sick with nerves every time? Fair comment, she reckoned. It wasn't really about having fun, but about the drive to be the best you and your horse could be. For Jessica, there was no better feeling than winning. Well, that and making her father proud. She didn't like to admit it, but she was fully aware that much of what she'd done in her life and what continued to push her was all about gaining her hard-taskmaster father's approval.

And today her nervousness was exacerbated by Jeff Collins' absence. He'd been her coach as well as her father and she hadn't realised it would be this hard to go on without him. This was a huge event, so much bigger and more important than any of the others she did throughout the year – had ever done, actually. In the past few weeks since her father had passed, she'd begun to question if she was losing her edge, her guts and her determination to tackle the fences, and the will to keep up with the high standards necessary to succeed. For the first time, she hadn't had him beside her walking the course, discussing the options and choosing the best one, pointing out overhanging tree limbs, where she could cut corners, where it wasn't safe to, etc. Two knowledgeable heads were always better than one.

Yesterday, on her first walk around, she'd been sad to be doing it alone. She'd nodded to other competitors she knew, but they all tended to walk the rounds in concentrated silence. And then her feelings had turned to guilt as she'd contemplated how much she actually quite liked the silence and being able to carefully consider the many aspects to the round without her father muttering and imposing his views on her or demanding to know her every move, over and over.

Training for this event had been different, and so many times she'd doubted what she was doing. Realising just how much of a crutch her father had been had come as a shock. Now, almost daily, she had moments where she didn't believe she could do this on her own, before she reminded herself that she had always done all the riding – her father had just stood on the ground or sat on a rail – and, towards the end, in a deckchair – issuing orders and criticism.

The problem was she'd always had the comfort of knowing that if something went wrong, her dad was usually there to sort it out, to issue instructions or phone someone for help. Now she was all alone. But she had to suck it up; she was a big girl. She felt kind of liberated. She had to keep believing in herself – and Prince. He was ready, they were ready. Anyway, her father would be furious if he could see her being so insecure. He'd probably say something like, ‘We didn't spend all this money and all this time, all these years, just to have you be so pathetic.' Yep, her dad had been pretty hard on her. But he'd also been fair. She wouldn't be where she was if it hadn't been for him. And her mother, before she'd died a couple of years ago.

Jessica thought about the advice her dad used to give her on competition days, and how he'd always question her instincts and decisions – sometimes over and over. It used to drive her mad. She so didn't miss that. The really annoying thing was that he hadn't actually been on a horse in twenty-odd years, so he couldn't begin to know her mount's fears, how long his stride really was, when he preferred to take off well out from a jump or go in deep. But that didn't stop her father thinking he knew best and forcing his opinion on her. And she'd learnt early on that you didn't contradict or argue with Jeff Collins. It was easier to just pretend you agreed and then do your own thing. Nonetheless, over the years she'd done pretty well. And today she would too.

Saddling up, she'd felt very sad and alone, and had wished she hadn't been so quick to urge Steve to go and play tennis.

Her husband didn't share her love of horses and competition, but he was supportive. Yet Jessica didn't like to take advantage of his kind nature and have him traipsing all over the place with her when it really wasn't his thing. In addition to his tennis and golf, he had his Country Fire Service; the CFS regularly took up a lot of time. And there was only so much someone could do.

Jessica watched as the horse before her went through the start gates and approached the first fence. Her heart was pounding and felt high up in her chest, as usual, but she also had a lump lodged in her throat that was threatening to upset her breathing. Normally her dad would be there just off to the side. While she never saw him scurrying across the course to keep watch on her, it was always a comfort to know he was out there somewhere. She was starting to feel quite melancholy and found herself gasping. God, she really had to pull herself together.

Jessica took a few deep breaths and patted the neck of the large bay thoroughbred-warmblood cross beneath her. He was still calm and didn't seem too affected by how tense she was. But she had to get herself together; she was the one in charge. Prince had to follow her direction; if her messages were mixed or indecisive over jumps this size, it could end in disaster and serious injury – for one or both of them. It was a warm day with little breeze, so she'd also really have to keep on him to up the pace, stop him slacking off.

‘Righto, mate, that's us. Let's do this,' she said, gritting her teeth and turning him towards the starting area as her number was called. Her heart flipped, but she gathered up her reins and stared down the course at the first jump – a nice solid log – twenty metres away.

‘And ten seconds to go,' the starter called.

Jessica tightened her reins and applied more leg to wind Prince up like a spring ready to go. He responded perfectly: head up, ears pricked, his powerful hinds well underneath him.

‘… four, three, two, and go!' the starter said.

Jessica gave Prince his head as they leapt across the start line and bounded towards the log. She stared hard ahead, feeling the length of Prince's stride below her. She tightened him up around eight strides out from the jump so she could carefully count her last four strides and shorten or lengthen him so he'd be placed to take off perfectly. The type of jump determined where she placed him, except with the first, where she always tightened him up a lot more so as to leave nothing to chance. Prince's approach and leap over the first obstacle usually gave a good indication of how the whole round would pan out. If he was unsettled and a bit spooked by spectators or the shadows, and hesitated at all approaching the first fence, she knew she'd have a battle on her hands to keep him focussed. She always held her breath until they were safely on the other side and on their way to the next fence.

Today she let out her breath and relaxed a little as they landed beautifully and headed on to the hay bales.

‘Good boy,' she whispered.

They bounded along, Jessica picking her track just as she'd walked it. She continued to count her last four strides into each obstacle in her head, adjusting Prince as she went. He was responding perfectly. A third of the way around and she was still clear and travelling well.

But Prince's breathing was more laboured than she would have liked, and he was sweating more heavily than usual. It was a tough course, and her first at this higher standard. She had to do her best to keep him up and energetic. No matter how hard she pushed him, though, he didn't seem to have any more pace to give. He was moving along okay, not so tired that she'd pull him up and retire, but she certainly wouldn't be anywhere near the top of the leader board at this rate unless everyone else bombed out. All she could do was her best to keep them safe and go for a clear, slow round with time penalties.

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