Showjumpers

 

Book two: extract

As Georgie Parker stepped aboard the plane, she felt like a total imposter. She was about to enter a world that was far too glamorous for a girl from Little Brampton – a tiny horsey village in the middle of rural Gloucestershire.
Up until a couple of months ago when she had first arrived at the Blainford Academy, the closest she’d ever come to being taken anywhere by a boy was when Adrian Baxter had given her a double to the shops on the handlebars of his bike.
Now, here she was, being whisked away on a private jet, about to spend the mid-term break with the impossibly gorgeous James Kirkwood. Try to act casual, Georgie told herself.Pretend you spend all your time on board private jets.
“Sorry we got stuck with the little plane today,” James apologised as he threw their luggage into one of the overhead lockers. “Dad and The Stepmom are using the big one. I guess we’ll have to make do!”
Georgie took in the sleek interior of the jet and couldn’t keep up her act any longer.
“Ohmigod James,” she said as she sat down on one of the enormous white leather seats. “This is totally amazing!”
“Do you want a drink?” James said as he walked to the back of the plane and opened a wall cabinet to reveal a fridge. “There’s lemonade, Coke or juice?”
“Juice please,” Georgie said. She peered out the window of the plane. The airstrip was located at the back of the school grounds, so from here she had a rear view of the red brick Georgian buildings of the school. To the right, she could make out the roofline of the stable blocks in the distance, where earlier that morning she’d said a tearful goodbye to Belladonna. She wouldn’t see her horse again until after the mid-term break.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” Georgie had complained to her best friend Alice as she locked the loose-box door for the last time. “You’re so lucky – getting to take Will home with you for the holidays.”
“Oh, please!” Alice had laughed. “You cannot seriously tell me that you would rather stay here with Belle than go away with James for five days?”
No-one had been more surprised than Georgie when James Kirkwood had asked her to spend mid-term break with him at his family’s mansion in Maryland. James was a whole year ahead of Georgie and even amongst the world-class riders at this exclusive, equestrian boarding school he stood out. He was a gifted showjumper, handsome and talented, the shining star of the Burghley House polo team, and heir to the Kirkwood millions.
The only downside of spending the holidays with James was his sister. Kennedy Kirkwood was a first year at the school, just like Georgie. From the moment that Kennedy discovered Georgie had topped the UK auditions for Blainford she had been desperately competitive with her. And after losing dramatically to Georgie on the cross-country course during mid-term exams, Kennedy’s dislike of her rival had reached epic proportions. Georgie had spent the last week of school virtually in hiding so that she could avoid Kennedy and her gang – the showjumperettes.
But so far James hadn’t mentioned his sister. There was still no sign of her and Georgie was beginning to hope that maybe Kennedy wasn’t coming.
“Here you go, an OJ cocktail before take-off,” James passed Georgie her juice and threw himself down in the seat next to her, sighing as he looked at his watch.
“Hey, Lance!” he called out. In the cockpit, the pilot put down the newspaper he was reading.
“Yes, Mr Kirkwood?”
“What’s the weather like in Maryland?”
“Clear as a bell, Mr Kirkwood,” the pilot replied. “It should be a nice flight. We’re just waiting on the others and then we’ll depart.”
“What others?” Georgie asked nervously. Her question was answered with a dramatic whoosh as the gull-wing doors of the plane opened and a girl with glossy red hair wearing a white sundress and gold sunglasses stepped on board. She took one look at Georgie and her expression turned sour.
“What is she doing here?”
“I told you I was bringing someone,” James said, “and you’ve kept us waiting – which is typical!”
“It wasn’t me this time,” Kennedy Kirkwood dropped her bags before collapsing elegantly into one of the plane’s plush leather seats. “It was Arden. She took forever to pack.”
Georgie couldn’t believe it. Spending the break with Kennedy was bad enough without the equally toxic socialite Arden Mortimer in tow! It got even worse when a pointy-faced blonde girl entered the cabin weighed down with several large Louis Vuitton bags.
“Kennedy! Can’t you tell the pilot to turn off those appalling plane engines? They’re ruining my blow dry!” The cut-glass British accent belonged to Tori Forsythe – the third member of the showjumperettes. She struggled up the stairs, while Arden Mortimer breezed in afterwards, her glossy dark mane tied back in a high ponytail and nothing but a make-up compact and a lip gloss in her hands.
“Where are your bags, Arden?” Kennedy asked. “Andrew’s got them,” Arden said airily as she took a seat. Behind her on the stairs a boy dressed in a Ralph Lauren mint green polo shirt was grunting as he struggled with Arden’s matching luggage.
“Man, Arden,” the boy groaned as he threw the bags down at her feet, “why am I carrying your stupid bags? And what have you got in here anyway?”
Arden gave him a dark look.
“Andrew, you might be able to survive on your pastel polo shirt collection, but some of us need to accessorise to get through a five-day break.” Andrew Hurley ignored this and strode over to help himself to a Coke out of the fridge, then he turned to James.
“Dude,” he frowned, refusing to acknowledge Georgie, “you didn’t tell us you were bringing her.”
Her name is Georgie,” James said coolly. “Georgie – you know Andrew Hurley right? He’s in Burghley House with me.”
“Hi Andrew,” Georgie smiled at him.
“Whatever,” Andrew groaned as he slumped into his seat at the back of the plane. The last passenger to board the plane was a boy with black wavy shoulder-length hair. His name was Damien Danforth. Georgie had seen him around the school with the rest of the second-year polo set. At school he dressed in the same uniform as the rest of the Blainford boys – black jodhpurs, brown boots and a navy shirt – but somehow managed to carry himself with a poetic flair that the others didn’t possess, wearing his navy shirt intentionally a size too large and leaving the buttons undone so that the cotton billowed as he strolled about the quad. Damien had a way of speaking, as if each word was an enormous effort. He had a transatlantic accent – neither American nor British, but somewhere in between.
“James,” he said as he shoved his bags up into the locker, “I couldn’t find my hunting stock. I’ll have to borrow one of yours…”
Then he turned and spotted Georgie.
“Hello! I didn’t realise Taylor Swift was coming with us.”
Georgie felt suddenly self-conscious about the fact that Alice had helped her to style her hair into ringlet curls instead of her usual plain blonde ponytail.
“Damien, this is Georgie Parker,” James said, “and before you say anything else rude to her, you should know that she’s my guest.”
“I wasn’t being rude!” Damien looked aghast. “I adore Taylor Swift!” He threw himself into the seat in the aisle opposite Georgie and leaned over to her.
“So Taylor, sweetheart, where did you come from?”
“Umm,” Georgie was thrown. “I’m from Little Brampton, in Gloucestershire.”
“Georgie is British eventing royalty,” James added. “She’s Ginny Parker’s daughter.”
“Is that true?” Damien looked impressed.
“Well, yes,” Georgie nodded, “but only the bit about my Mum being Ginny Parker.”
“Oh, good,” Damien said with relief. “We’ve already got Kennedy on the plane – we don’t need another princess onboard.”
“Shut up, Damien!” Kennedy threw the pillow off her seat at him.
“Hey, no fighting! Buckle up, everyone,” James grinned. “We’re taking off.”
As they’d been talking, the jet had done its short taxi to the end of the grassy airstrip and the engines were whining and thrumming. Suddenly Georgie was thrust back in her seat as the plane gathered speed, until it struck that moment of pure freedom as the wheels lifted off the ground and they were airborne in the clear blue sky, bound for Maryland.
Georgie thought it was ironic that James had introduced her as eventing royalty. Royalty implied being privileged, but that was the last thing that Georgie felt. Ginny Parker had died in a tragic accident on the cross-country course four years ago and since then it had just been Georgie and her dad. Their country life was hardly one of luxury and Georgie had been forced to sell her beloved black pony Tyro because she couldn’t afford to board him with her at Blainford. Instead, she had been allocated one of the Academy’s horses to ride.
At Blainford, riding a school horse tainted you with a whiff of impoverishment – a fact that Kennedy was only too keen to point out. Georgie hadn’t been exactly thrilled about her assigned horse at first either, but now she adored Belladonna. She was a headstrong mare, but such a beauty with a jet-black mane and coat of dark mahogany bay. Georgie was beginning to really bond with Belle. Their relationship felt so natural. Which was more than she could say about James. She wasn’t even sure where she stood with him. Were they officially dating? The way he looked at her now with those startling blue eyes was totally unnerving.
“Regretting coming with me?” James asked.
“No,” she lied.
“Ah, but you haven’t met my parents yet,” James deadpanned.
“I’m sure they’re not that bad,” Georgie said.
“No,” James replied, “They’re worse. Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll love you. Dad used to be a showjumper when he was at Blainford, so all you need to do is mention that you’ve made the team for the House Showjumping.”
“Your dad must have been proud when you made it into the Burghley team,” Georgie said.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” James gave her a wry smile. “It’s hard to tell with my father.”
The House Showjumping was an annual event at Blainford and just before mid-term break the try-outs had been held for the school teams – Georgie and James had both been chosen to represent their boarding houses. When Georgie got back to school, there would be showjumping training to contend with – as well as a mountain of schoolwork. Despite being an equestrian academy, Blainford didn’t cut students any slack when it came to academic subjects like English and Maths. But it was cross-country class with Tara Kelly that really had Georgie stressed out. In their half-term exam, Georgie had finished halfway up the class rankings and so had avoided elimination. However, Tara had already promised that the next half-term would be even more challenging than the first.
“Tara is a total dragon. Her class is a nightmare,” James said. “Although you seem to cope.”
“I’m still alive, if that’s what you mean,” Georgie replied.
“All you cross-country students are the same,” James said. “You act like it’s so important…”
“But it is!” Georgie said. “James, I came here to becomean eventer and Tara is the best instructor in the business. Being in her class matters to me more than anything.”
As the pilot had promised, the weather was good all the way to Maryland. Almost exactly an hour after they had taken off, the plane began its descent. They came down through the clouds and then suddenly the skies were clear and they were close enough for Georgie to see the tops of the trees and cattle grazing on velvet-green pastures. “That’s the house down there,” James said, leaning over and pointing out the grey shingled roofline of a massive country mansion.
Alice had warned Georgie that the Kirkwoods owned the grandest house in Maryland, but even so, Georgie hadn’t really expected anything on this vast scale. The Kirkwood property was like an English country estate. Spanning out around the house in all directions were vast, formal gardens. From above, the hedges and topiary created an elaborate maze, dotted with fountains and statuary. Beyond the gardens, James pointed out guest cottages made from the same grey stone as the main house, and stable blocks for the horses, polo fields and dressage arenas.
Georgie could hear the clunk beneath the belly of the aircraft as the plane lowered its landing gear. She looked out of the window at the green, grassy airstrip rushing up at them and watched as a handful of black-faced sheep grazing the pasture below them scattered out of their path. Seconds later the plane struck the ground with a vigorous bounce. There were a few more bumps and thuds as they bounced across the airstrip and then the plane was turning around and heading towards the hangar at the rear of the mansion. As the others disembarked, Georgie reached for her bag.
“Leave it,” James instructed. “You don’t have to carry your own bags around here.”
If the Kirkwood mansion had looked like a grand affair from the sky, it was no less daunting when you were standing on the doorstep. From the front, the building had even more of a stately air, with dark ivy growing vigorously up the walls almost to the roofline and a beigepebbled forecourt in front of the entrance, with a large fountain for the cars to drive around.
James rang the bell and a few moments later the front door swung wide open. Georgie was confronted with an attractive woman in a dark navy suit, her hair pulled back in a tight elegant bun that accentuated her wide blue eyes. She looked nothing like James, but Georgie wasn’t surprised by this. After all, James had told her that he had a stepmother.
“Georgie,” James said, “this is Frances.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs Kirkwood,” Georgie said. Trying her hardest to be polite, she extended her hand to shake, but the woman made no effort to take it. Georgie thought that perhaps a curtsy might be more appropriate. She withdrew her hand and dipped down at the knees, doing a little bow. As she rose up again she saw that the woman was staring at her in utter bewilderment.
Kennedy gave a snicker.
“Frances is our maid,” she informed Georgie as she barged past with Tori, Arden and the boys behind her. “The stepmom doesn’t answer the bell around here.”
“Where is Patricia?” James asked Frances.
“Your stepmother is on her way back from Paris,” the maid replied. “And your father…” She was interrupted by the deep sonorous boom of a hunting horn that made Georgie spin around.
Across the green lawns of the Kirkwood gardens, darting in between bushes and leaping over hedges, came the fox hounds. The pack was running with their tongues lolling out and tails held erect. They must have been at the end of a run because their tan, black and white coats were covered in burrs and mud. When they reached the elegant fountain in the forecourt the hounds began to leap straight in, some of them lowering themselves to sink down beneath the water and cool off, others standing on all fours in the shallow fountain, lapping away at the water.
The horn sounded again and Georgie saw a man appear astride a magnificent grey hunter. He wore a red jacket that signified that he was the master of the hounds. He had the horn in one hand and with the other he kept a light grasp on the reins as he rode directly down the middle of the carefully mown lawn, jumping metre-high topiary hedges as if they weren’t even there.
“Ohmygod!” Georgie was stunned.
“I know!” James nodded, “Just as well Patricia isn’t here. She’d give him a telling off for galloping across the front lawn like that.”
The man cantered the horse across the pebbled forecourt and pulled his mount up right in front of Georgie and James. When he vaulted down to stand beside them, he towered over James. He was as solidly built as his hunter and his red hair was greying at the temples beneath his velvet riding hat. He pulled off his brown leather gloves and shook hands with James in a brisk fashion.
“The hounds had a good run today,” the man said. “They’re in good shape for the hunt tomorrow. I assume you’re joining us at ten to throw off?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” James confirmed.
“Hunting?” Georgie was horrified. “You don’t hunt?”
The hunt master frowned.
“I can’t even believe you’d ask me that!” Georgie said. “Chasing after a poor little fox on horseback and killing it like that! It’s cruel and barbaric.”
“Now wait a minute…” the man tried to say. But Georgie was in full swing. “I think it’s pathetic. All those dogs set against one poor fox as some sort of ghastly entertainment.”
“But…” the hunt master tried again.
“It’s outlawed in Britain, you know,” Georgie continued. “I’d have thought America would ban it too – like any civilised society.”
This last sentence was something Georgie had heard in Social Studies the week before and she was quite pleased to be able to use it to bold effect.
The hunt master sighed. “Are you finished?”
Georgie nodded emphatically.
“Right,” the hunt master said. “Firstly, they’re not called dogs. They must always be referred to as hounds. Secondly, we are not hunting foxes. No fox has ever been hunted on Kirkwood land – we hunt an aniseed lure and no animals are killed for our pleasure. And as for being civilised, I find it is always good manners to greet your host before you begin to rain torrents of abuse on them for crimes they have not committed.”
Georgie felt her stomach do a flip-flop. She’d just made a major mistake.
“Georgie,” James sighed, “I didn’t get the chance to introduce you. This is my father.”
The huntsman extended his hand.
“A pleasure to meet you, young lady,” he said in a tone that indicated it was anything but. “I’m Randolph Kirkwood.”