quarters and then rubbed Barney and Picasso down before giving them some water, rugging them up and settling them with fresh haynets in the lorry.
‘What a day!’ said Ellie dazedly as they went back into the living area and tidied up.
Joe grinned at her as he stowed their hats in one of the lockers. ‘And to think just a few months ago you wouldn’t even ride the ponies.’
‘Yeah.’ Ellie shook her head. So much had happened in the last few months. Spirit. The ponies. Everything. She remembered how she had felt when she first arrived at High Peak Stables, how desolate she had been.
Overwhelmed by the memory, Ellie rubbed her arm across her eyes.
‘Are you OK?’ Joe said, coming over and putting a hand on her shoulder.
She nodded, swallowing hard.
As she glanced into his greeny-grey eyes, Ellie felt her stomach curl. They stared at each other for a moment and then Joe gently brushed a loose strand of hair back from Ellie’s face. Almost without realizing what she was doing, she stepped forward. He lowered his head instinctively and she rose on tiptoe to meet him.
Just then, the handle on the jockey door turned with a rattle. They leapt apart as if someone had just thrown scalding water over them.
The door opened. Luke was standing there. ‘Alfie’s about to go in the Intermediate Championship,’ he announced. ‘Are you two going to come and watch?’ He seemed to pick up on the tension. He looked from one to the other. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Going on? Nothing,’ Joe said, grabbing a whip off the floor and throwing it into a bucket with the other whips. ‘We … we were just putting stuff away.’
Ellie’s heart was pounding. ‘Yes. Just tidying up a bit.’ She turned so Luke couldn’t see her burning cheeks.
‘Well, come and see the championship then,’ said Luke, giving Ellie one last penetrating stare.
‘Sure.’ Joe went to the door. ‘Coming, Ellie?’
Ellie waited as Luke had turned and begun walking back towards the show.
‘Joe …’ she breathed, wondering what had just happened. Reaching out, she touched his hand. Their eyes met.
‘Come on,’ Joe said softly, after a moment. ‘We’d really better go, Ellie.’
She nodded, her heart still beating wildly against her ribs.
He jumped down from the horsebox. She scrambled down the steps after him, and studiously avoiding each other’s gaze, they followed Luke back across the car park.
Ellie walked beside Spirit along the lane as the sun slowly sank down in the sky. She rested her hand on his shoulders, feeling his muscles move beneath her palm. As always, when she was with him, and just him, she felt a sense of peace – of coming home.
Her thoughts mulled over the day. The show had been so much fun, but then there had been the moment in the horsebox with Joe …
It was only because I was upset , she told herself. It was hard thinking about everything that’s happened – Mum, Dad, almost losing Spirit .
Her fingers played in Spirit’s long mane. She must stop thinking about it. Joe was her friend, that was all. Pushing the memory deep down, she remembered the rest of the show. It had been fantastic to win the class and quite weird to get on with Luke for a change. Ellie shook her head. She’d never met anyone who she could like so much one minute and then hate the next. But he’d been like a different personwhile they had been at the show. Excitement bubbled through her as she suddenly remembered the moment when she had won the class. She couldn’t wait until the next time.
Sensitive to her moods as always, Spirit pushed against her.
She patted him. ‘Joe was right in the horsebox, Spirit,’ she told him. ‘So much has changed in just a few months. Not just the riding and the shows, of course, but having you and being able to talk to you, and now being able to keep you and also being able to communicate with Picasso too. Everything’s different.’
Spirit lifted his nose and explored her face with his muzzle. Ellie felt a rush of overpowering love and sighed. Without doubt, the thing that mattered most was keeping him. Everything else could change, but as long as she had Spirit she knew her life would be complete.
She remembered the bleak landscape she had arrived to, less than three months ago. The ground had been hard with frost, the wind bitter, the trees’ branches bare. But now the sun was shining, the fields were full of lambs, some bouncing, others feeding,
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