The Exmoor Pony is the oldest breed of native pony in Great Britain, first domesticated by the Celts. They are stocky, sturdy animals, known for their hardiness and resistance to many of the diseases that affect most other breeds of horses. I first read about them years ago, and the notion of an ancient, almost mystical breed of pony running wild on the moors and mountains of Devon captured my imagination and wouldn’t let go. The seed of Recklessly Yours was planted then. In the story, Colin is protecting a herd of Exmoors, although in his own words, he belongs to them much more than they could ever belong to him. His fate, and that of his family and those who live on their Devonshire estate, is closely tied to his ability to do right by these exquisite creatures.
If you’d like to read more about Exmoor Ponies, here are some links:
Excerpt: (In which Holly is attempting to avoid a gang of angry villagers outside Colin’s estate on the Devonshire Moors…)
Beyond a doubt, she had taken a wrong direction. As she raced around the rheumatic twist of a dead rowan, the stream, foaming furiously, wound its way across her path and brought her to an uncertain halt. Some dozen yards to her left, a very different footbridge from the one she’d first crossed spanned the flooded banks. This one, made of wood, appeared much older and narrower than the other. She sprinted to it only to discover the planking to be faded and splintered, even broken in places. The structure hardly looked trustworthy.
Another glance behind her revealed no sign of either the villagers or the man in the greatcoat. Had they given up their pursuit, or slipped into hiding to await her next move? She scanned the horizon ahead of her and to her great relief detected the corner of a chimney scraping the sky. The rain began to fall harder, obscuring her vision.
Grabbing hold of the rail, she gingerly placed a foot on the first plank. The bridge trembled slightly but otherwise seemed solid enough. The way across couldn’t be more than a dozen yards, a stone’s throw. If she went quickly and remained light on her feet . . .
Halfway across, the bridge sagged beneath her weight. The stream lapped at her feet, shocking her toes with frigid water and making her afraid to move in either direction. Logic demanded she continue forward, but her next step produced a resounding crack.
The slat splintered in half and one foot fell out from under her, plunging calf deep into the racing water. She gripped the rails with both hands and for several seconds clung to hope. Then the bridge shuddered and broke apart. Holly felt herself falling, splashing into the frothing, frigid water, engulfed in her own terror and the relentless current.
Deep into the valley a mile and a half from Briarview, Colin shortened Cordelier’s reins to slow the stallion’s pace. The Exmoor ponies coursed around him and pounded past, their ranks narrowing as they surged between the rocky granite tors that ringed the valley’s eastern rim. Cordelier came to a restive halt, snorting and pawing the ground while the last of the herd disappeared at a gallop.
As the trembling of the ground stilled and the air quieted, the euphoric thudding of his heart eased and the rush of blood through his veins calmed. They were his responsibility, those ponies, and his duty to protect them brought him joy he never spoke of, not to another living soul. However much his father believed he owned the herd that roamed his land, Colin knew the ponies belonged to no man. They belonged to the earth, to tradition and legend. They were free, and only by the dictates of their collective will did they tolerate an outside presence among them.
As they tolerated Colin and Cordelier. As a boy he’d discovered that all he needed to do was ride out across the moors, and the ponies would gallop with him, accepting him as one of the herd. He didn’t understand it, but the realization had dawned that he belonged to them far more than they could ever belong to him. True, they needed his protection from those who would separate or abuse them—men like his father—or those who would destroy their native habitat, but he needed them just as much, for it was only with them that he felt truly alive.
He laughed out loud at the notion, a bitter sound bitten off by a rainy gust. Ironic that it took a herd of wild ponies to remind him that he was a free man with passions and dreams of his own, and not merely Thaddeus Ashworth’s heir. Here, on the upper reaches of the Devonshire moors, with the ground coursing beneath him and the sky stretching above, the pounding of hooves drowned out the cynicism and self-doubt his father had planted inside him at an early age.
At least, all that had been true as recently as two days ago. Now, however. . . .
The conviction had filled him that with Holly at his side, he had the power to break free of whatever curses, real or imagined, held him and his family. With her in his life, he might finally know happiness.
Sucking a draft of soggy air deep into his lungs, he swung Cordelier about and headed for home. Bringing Holly into his world would more likely change her life for the worse, than his for the better. It was not a chance he’d willingly take.
He neared Briarview’s forested acreage, preparing to jump Cordelier over the stream that looped around it. He leaned low over the stallion’s dark mane just as a tangle of rotten, broken boards rushed by on the water. Screams pierced the wind. Colin lurched upright in the saddle, prompting Cordelier to bounce to a stop. Colin pricked his ears, and another desperate cry sent Cordelier rearing up on hind legs, his front hooves thrashing.
Colin’s blood ran cold. The old footbridge. With a tap of his heels he and Cordelier set off at a gallop.
In less than a minute he came upon a half-submerged flurry of dark skirts and white petticoats; a pair of hands groped frantically at the air. Holly’s desperate face appeared briefly in the foaming waters. The current closed over her, flipped her around, and thrust her upward again. All Colin could see of her now were glistening, streaming ribbons of red hair. His heart rocketed into his throat. Oh, God . . . oh, God.
“Holly!” he shouted, “I’m coming!”
He turned Cordelier again and urged him to a full-out gallop along the bank of the stream. As he went, Colin slid free of the stirrups and slung a leg over the stallion’s neck so that both his feet dangled toward the water. Holding his breath, he waited until he rode up even with Holly, and then passed her by several long paces. In a few more yards the watercourse would narrow slightly—enough, he prayed, for what he intended.
A tightening of the reins slowed Cordelier to a canter. Colin mentally counted to three, then propelled himself from the saddle, hitting the bank with a force that clacked his teeth together. Using the momentum, he slid down the bank into the water. Submerged chest deep, he fought past the chill and battled the current to reach the middle of the stream.
His arms outstretched and his feet braced as solidly as possible against the rocky stream bed, he waited as swirling fabric, streaming hair, and Holly’s white, terrified face rushed closer. She hit him with an impact that knocked the breath from his lungs. His feet threatened to slip, his legs to swing out from under him. He closed his arms around her and she went limp against him, her own arms hanging slack, her legs tangling with his. The water clawed at her saturated skirts, almost prying her loose from his arms.
Clutching her tighter, he called on all the strength he possessed to hug her to his chest. He sidestepped toward the far bank, where the overhanging branches of a willow tree skimmed the current. Limbs stiff with cold and muscles aching from the exertion, he fought his way closer to the tree and chanced lifting one arm from around her. Reaching out, he gripped a branch and hauled himself and Holly out of the water and onto the muddy bank.
Her eyes closed, her body wilting against the ground, she showed no signs of consciousness. On his knees beside her, he swept the sodden snarls of hair from her cheeks and cupped her face in his hands. “Holly. Oh, God . . . please . . .”
He rubbed her cheeks, hands, and arms in a desperate attempt to force the blood to flow. Hunching over her, he slipped an arm beneath her shoulders and lifted her against him, pressing his lips to her forehead, to her mouth. Then he remembered something vital. As her sister had once done for Simon after an experiment had nearly killed him, he opened her mouth and breathed into her, forcing air in and out of her lungs. All the while he prayed and raged and promised God anything . . . anything. . . .
A sputtering cough sent dizzying relief all through him. Her eyelids fluttered, and a racking cough shook her frame. Over and over she coughed, cringing from the force, her shoulders wrenching.
Twisting away from him, she doubled over, her face hanging low over the ground as she gagged and purged the stream water from her lungs. Helpless to provide relief, Colin thrust an arm across the front of her shoulders to support her while with his other hand he gathered her hair and held it back from her face. Each convulsion echoed through him until the tension flowed from her body.
“What . . . happened?” Her head hanging, her voice came as a tremulous flutter. Wiping shaky fingers across her lips, she gazed feebly up at him. Her image blurred before his eyes, obscured by tears he couldn’t prevent. He felt her cold palm against his cheek. “You saved me.”
Then her hand fell away and she collapsed against him in a dead faint.
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And if not, click on the covers below to see where you can find Recklessly Yours, and books 1 & 2: Most Eagerly Yours and Outrageously Yours…