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Authors: Stacy Gregg

Riding Star

PONY CLUB RIVALS
Riding Star

STACY GREGG

Riding Star
is dedicated to my riding instructor, the wonderful Nicola Ward, and to Kirsten Kelly who looks after my horse so well whenever he's at ‘boarding school'. Also my equine support group: Sandra Noakes, Nicky Pellegrino, Fiona Curtis and Gwen Brown. I wrote the last chapters of this book in Gisborne – grateful thanks to showjumper Sarah Aitken and polo player Tom Lane who provided inspiration in so many ways. Lastly to my brilliant bay gelding, Ash – I couldn't have done it without you.

W
hen Georgie Parker packed her bags for Blainford Academy she was the talk of Little Brampton. The local girl made good, she had aced the UK auditions and earned herself a place at the exclusive international equestrian boarding school in Lexington, Kentucky, USA. Everyone in her tiny Gloucestershire village agreed that she was destined to follow in her famous mother's footsteps and take the eventing world by storm.

Now she was back for Christmas break after a term away. As she stood shivering in the snow at the gates of Lucinda Milwood's riding school, Georgie wasn't feeling quite as upbeat about her homecoming as she'd expected.

Above her head, the dark clouds promised another snowfall that evening. The yard was empty and Georgie figured the horses must be already tucked up in their loose boxes, waiting for their hard feed. She clacked open the gates to the yard and walked up the driveway, heading for the stable block.

At the front door Georgie stood for a moment, taking a deep breath, inhaling the smell of straw, horse sweat and liniment. These stables had been a second home after her mum had died. She would come here every day before and after school to help Lucinda with the ponies, grooming and mucking out in exchange for lessons on her black Connemara, Tyro.

After Georgie made it into Blainford, she had kept in touch with Lucinda, but over the past few weeks she had failed to email her old instructor. Afraid to tell Lucinda about what had happened last term, she had delayed the inevitable. But she knew she couldn't put it off any longer.

Or maybe she could. Lucinda was nowhere to be seen.

“Hello? Lucinda?” Georgie's voice echoed through

the empty stable block. She was about to turn and walk out again when the tack-room door opened and a woman with dark brown hair appeared, carrying three heavy feed buckets.

Struggling with her armful of buckets, the woman barely glanced up at the blonde girl in the corridor. “I'm sorry,” she grunted, “but if you've come to enquire about signing up for lessons you'll need to come back next week. We're closed until January the fifth…”

Georgie laughed. “Lucinda! Have I really been gone so long you don't even recognise me?”

There was a moment of disbelief and then Lucinda Milwood let out a joyful shriek, dropping the feed buckets as she raced over to Georgie and enveloped her in the most enormous hug.

“Georgie!” she cried. “What on earth are you doing here? I thought you weren't arriving until tomorrow!”

“I got an early flight,” Georgie grinned. “I told Dad and Lily not to say anything. I wanted to surprise you.”

Lucinda beamed at her former pupil. “It's so good to see you. I swear you've grown taller than me – what are they feeding you at that school?”

“Ughhh! I do not want to even think about boarding-school food for the next few weeks!” Georgie pulled a face.

“Here,” Lucinda handed her a bucket. “Help me finish off the feeds and then I'll make us a nice cup of tea and you can tell me everything about school. How are your classes?”

“Ummm… well, actually…” Georgie started to say, but Lucinda had already headed off down the corridor.

“Give your one to Dooley,” she shouted back over her shoulder. “He's in the first box.”

Georgie headed for the first stall and swung open the bottom half of the Dutch door, ducking underneath the top half to hang the bucket in the empty bracket on the wall.

This first loose box held a big piebald cob: black and white patches with a thick mane, fluffy feet and one blue wall eye. When he saw Georgie, the cob strode straight up to her, nickering his grateful thanks.

“Hey, Dooley.” Georgie gave the piebald a firm pat on his broad neck. “How've you been?”

Georgie stepped aside and watched as the black and white gelding shoved his muzzle deep into the bucket and began snuffling up the chaff and sugarbeet.

“He looks good, doesn't he?” Lucinda said, joining her in the loose box to admire the horse.

Georgie nodded. “He was always one of my favourites.”

“I've got a couple of new horses since you were here last.” Lucinda led Georgie back out into the corridor and passed her another feed bucket. “Shamrock and Jack Sparrow. Come on, I'll introduce you.”

Shamrock turned out to be a rangy chestnut Thoroughbred with bony hindquarters and deep brown eyes, while Jack Sparrow was a small, fleabitten grey pony with a wilful look about him.

“They're both for the school, but Jack is proving to be a bit of a handful for most of the riders,” Lucinda admitted. “He's been getting away with murder. He raced off with Davina Pike the other day and deposited her over a fence. Not that I can say that I blame him – there are many times when I've wanted to do the same thing myself!”

She smiled at Georgie. “It's so good to have you back! The horses have missed you terribly. Dooley and Billy could both do with some schooling work if you have time.”

Georgie nodded. “I'm yours for the next two weeks.” “Well I could certainly use your help,” Lucinda said. “It's been impossible to find good grooms since you've been away.” Lucinda put the last feed bin in the loose box and shut the door. “So, is cross-country class going OK? I hope Tara hasn't been too tough on you this term.”

Tara Kelly, an old school friend of Lucinda's, was the head of the Blainford eventing department. Renowned for being the toughest teacher at the academy, Tara had been Georgie's cross-country teacher for the past term.

When Georgie had arrived at the academy she had expected to excel in Tara's class. After all, at the age of thirteen she was already the best junior cross-country rider in Gloucestershire. But things were different at Blainford. Thrust among elite, hand-picked equestrians from all over the world, she was facing real competition for the first time.

To make things even harder she had been forced to sell her beloved Tyro because she couldn't afford to take him to America and pay his boarding fees. Georgie was trying to cope with a new horse, Belladonna, a talented but headstrong mare.

Struggling to click with her new mount, Georgie found herself at the bottom of the class rankings, fighting to survive the gruelling end-of-term eliminations. Tara Kelly was known for axing students from her freshman intake if they didn't measure up to her exacting standards. Which brought Georgie to the big news that she needed to tell Lucinda.

“I've been dropped from Tara Kelly's class.”

The words tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop them. Lucinda stared at her in stunned disbelief.

“Georgie! But why? I thought you said that you had Belle going really well?”

“I do… now,” Georgie groaned. “Belle has been brilliant ever since the House Showjumping, but we had lots of trouble earlier in the term and then on finals day she would have been OK except Kennedy forced me off the course on the steeplechase. I had to pull Belle up or she would have got hurt.”

It sounded so lame, like she was making excuses for her bad performance. But she wasn't. Her expulsion from class was unfair and it had been masterminded by Blainford's own resident evil – Kennedy Kirkwood.

“Did you tell Tara what happened?” Lucinda asked. “If this Kennedy forced you off the jump then she should be reprimanded…”

“I tried,” Georgie sighed, “but Tara didn't see it – she had no choice. I'd been at the bottom of the rankings all term and so she eliminated me.”

“Do you want me to talk to Tara?” Lucinda offered. “I could call her and—”

Georgie shook her head. It would only make things worse.

“I know I should just get over it and take another subject, but…” Georgie took a deep breath, “… eventing class is the whole reason I wanted to go to Blainford in the first place. I know it sounds so pathetic, Lucinda, but I just don't know what I'm going to do…”

“Oh, Georgie! Why didn't you tell me? You poor thing.” Lucinda put her arms round Georgie once more, hugging her even tighter, as the tears that Georgie had been fighting to hold back finally began to flow.

*

Two weeks in Little Brampton was just what Georgie needed to recover from that last dreadful term at Blainford. Even if not all of her friends were as understanding as Lucinda.

“It sounds awful at your stupid boarding school – getting dumped from cross-country class! I don't understand why you want to go back!”

Georgie's best friend Lily had never been one to hide her feelings. She'd been outright miserable when Georgie had decided to leave Little Brampton and now that she saw her chance to convince Georgie to turn her back on Blainford she wasn't going to leave it alone.

“You always say that cross-country is the most important bit of eventing,” Lily said, “so you might as well chuck the whole business!”

“It's not that simple,” Georgie insisted. “Lucinda says I shouldn't give up. I should try to convince Tara to let me back into her class.”

“How are you going to do that?”

Georgie shook her head. “I don't know yet. And I've got to choose a new subject to take in the meantime. I think I'll do dressage…”

“I don't understand dressage,” Lily sighed. “I mean, it's just riding around in circles, isn't it? It's like ‘Look, everyone, I've got a horse!'”

Georgie groaned. It was impossible trying to explain riding to Lily. She was simply not horsey. Right now she was on her bike, cycling alongside Georgie who was riding Toffee, one of the horses from Lucinda's stables. Georgie had tried to convince Lily to ride one of the other ponies, but Lily wasn't having any of it.

“I'll stick with my bike, thanks – at least it doesn't bolt off or try to buck,” she said firmly, strapping on her cycle helmet.

The two girls rode through the village, heading towards the shops with five pounds to spend on fish and chips.

“We'll get loads for a fiver,” Lily said confidently. “Nigel is working today.”

“Look at you! You've sold your love to Nigel for a piece of battered cod,” Georgie teased.

Nigel Potts's parents owned the fish and chip shop, and he was constantly harassing Lily to go out with him. It seemed that his persistence had finally paid off.

“I'm not actually going out with him or anything!” Lily insisted as she cycled on. “It was just the one date. He took me to the cinema and he ponged so badly of fish and chips it was like sitting next to a deep-fat fryer.”

Lily sighed. “It's hardly glamorous, is it? Not like you and your handsome polo player whisking you off for a romantic weekend in the country.”

“… a romantic weekend in which he dumped me with his hideous sister, and then ran off to snog her best friend!” Georgie clarified.

Her relationship with James Kirkwood had ended super-badly – even if he and Georgie had made peace at the School Formal at the end of term.

“Well, what about Riley?” Lily asked. “You're going out with him now, right?”

“I don't know,” Georgie groaned. “He turns up at the School Formal, and everything is great, but then he does a total disappearing act on me.”

That night at the School Formal when Riley had taken Georgie in his arms and assured her that they would find a way to convince Tara to take her back, she had felt so safe, certain that somehow everything would be OK again. Georgie wasn't going to let Kennedy steal her future. She would fight her way back into the cross-country class.

But that confidence had begun to ebb away. Waking up in the cold light of day the next morning she realised she had no idea how to persuade Tara to reinstate her in the cross-country class. And Riley never called.

“But you'll see him when you get back to school?” Lily said.

Georgie shook her head. “He doesn't go to Blainford. He thinks the academy is full of rich snobs.”

“So let me get this straight,” Lily said, peddling harder so that Georgie had to push Toffee into a trot to keep up. “You've been dumped by two boys and one teacher and you're still going back? Geez, Georgie! What's it going to take to convince you to come home?”

*

Nigel was behind the till when the two girls arrived at the Fish Pott.

“All right then, Georgie?” Nigel greeted her. “Back from your la-di-dah school for the holidays?”

“Ignore him,” Lily said, looking pointedly at Nigel. “He got dipped in batter as a child and he's never been the same since.”

Nigel smiled at her. “Have you come in to make an order, Lily, or have you just come in to see me?”

“Not likely!” Lily snorted. “We'll have two fishburgers and chips, thanks.”

The burgers and chips were warm tucked beneath Georgie's vest to keep them safe for the ride home.

“Is that what everyone thinks about me?” Georgie asked Lily as she mounted up again on Toffee. “That I'm some stuck-up posh girl now, just because I go to Blainford?”

“Don't listen to Nigel. He's just jealous because the furthest he's ever been in his life is Tewkesbury for the late-night shopping.”

Lily sighed. “I wish you were coming home for good, though, Georgie. I really miss you.”

Georgie felt a lump sticking in her throat. It was so weird being back in Little Brampton again. Her dad had been beside himself with delight and Georgie noticed that he made sure he was home early every night. On Christmas Day he'd even cooked a massive Christmas dinner and invited Lily and Lucinda over.

Lucinda had been really kind too, encouraging Georgie to try out every single horse in the stables. Georgie had great new friends at Blainford, like Alice and Emily and Daisy, but she and Lily had known each other forever.

However, even though the past term at Blainford had been tough, Georgie was dying to get back on the plane to Lexington. She loved Little Brampton – but this wasn't where she wanted to be. Blainford had given her a glimpse of the future and the rider that she could become. She was determined to become an international eventer like her mother, to travel the world and live a life full of excitement, glamour and horses – lots of horses.

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