A. J. Sutherland is the daughter of a wealthy man and her family owns their own riding stables. When A. J. attends a horse auction, she is immediately taken with Sabbath, a magnificent, but almost impossible to control stallion. She just knows that he has the heart of a champion, and ends up bidding an exorbitant amount to purchase him, only to have her stepbrother, who runs the business end of the stables, override her purchase and refuse to board the animal. A. J. is livid with him and decides that it's time for her to show a little independence. She spends nearly every penny she has in her bank account to buy Sabbath with her own funds, but then has nowhere to take him.
Devlin McCloud is a former show-jumping champion who was in a terrible riding accident less than a year ago. His leg was mangled, he lost his prized horse that was like an extension of himself, and he has basically lost the drive for the sport. When he bumps into A. J. at the auction and she impulsively asks him to train her and Sabbath for the upcoming show jumping qualifier, he refuses, but when she shows up at his ranch in the middle of the night with nowhere to go, he can't resist helping out. By morning Devlin finds himself completely taken with both the girl and the horse and agrees to her plan, even though he isn't certain they can get such an unruly beast as Sabbath prepared for the event in a mere two months time. The immediate attraction between Devlin and A. J. burns hotter the longer they work together, until they can no longer deny the call of their hearts. But can Devlin find a way to balance being both lover and trainer to A. J. without breaking either her spirit or her heart in the process?
Leaping Hearts is the first book written by Jessica Bird aka the fabulous J. R. Ward of Black Dagger Brotherhood fame. Sadly, it seems to have rather low ratings on some of the major book sites that I frequent, but I think this may be due to fans of her later work deciding to try her backlist titles only to be disappointed. Like many, I came to be a fan through the BDB, but was still able to view Leaping Hearts as a completely different entity. I also found it to be a fascinating study in how an author's writing can grow to a fuller and richer state over time, and therefore, may have been able to appreciate in a way that other readers didn't.
Unlike the BDB, Leaping Hearts and all the books J. R. Ward wrote as Jessica Bird are contemporary romances. The focus of this book is squarely on the desire of a young woman to prove herself by earning a spot on the Olympic equestrian team, but the beautiful stallion she impulsively purchases at the beginning of the story and wishes to ride has an unruly temperament. The pair find a friend in a former rider who was severely injured just the year before and has shut himself away from the world, but finds new purpose in life through training them. The book takes a very detailed look at the world of equestrian show jumping, and I thought that Jessica Bird really brought that aspect of the story to life. She either has personal experience with horses or did her homework extremely well. I also found it to be a rather unusual setting for a romance. However, if this subject isn't of interest to the reader, I suppose it could become somewhat dull. I personally had a rather obsessive interest in horses, as well as equestrian show jumping, when I was a teenager, and although the extremes of my fascination have waned over the years, I can still appreciate the beauty of both the beast and the sport.
Devlin and A. J., the hero and heroine of the book were both likable characters, but I thought that perhaps their individual personalities and relationship could have used a little more depth. As I mentioned earlier, Devlin was a champion show jumper who could no longer ride due to a serious injury he had sustained the year before. He had also lost his beloved horse in the same accident and the grief had caused him to shut himself away. Devlin finds himself quite drawn to A. J. and her horse, Sabbath, and can't quite resist the pull to get back in the ring even if it's just coaching another rider from the sidelines. With his limp and slightly tortured nature, I could see shades of a much tamer version of one of the Brothers lurking within Devlin. A. J. was a woman with rather complex family ties. She was also a little impulsive, buying Sabbath, who had a terrible reputation, mostly on a whim, but she was very determined to turn him, and thereby herself, into a champion in hopes of proving herself to her family once and for all. For someone who was so certain she could win with Sabbath, A. J. did get a little discouraged rather quickly in the training process, but as small progresses were made, she started coming back around to her more positive way of thinking. In the end, she became so intent on winning the qualifier as to risk her own health. This caused Devlin and A. J. to argue and separate a couple of times which seemed a little extreme for the circumstances. As is, it didn't seem like such an insurmountable obstacle as to cause a break-up, so this is one area in which I thought the author delving a bit more deeply into the dynamics of their relationship would have been helpful.
There weren't a lot of secondary characters, but those present were pretty well-drawn. Sabbath is probably the main one, and I have to say that Jessica Bird did an amazing job with bringing his personality to life, which can be rather hard to do with an animal character. He certainly lived up to his wild reputation, but at the same time, I could really sense both his joy at being in the ring and his fear of water. Devlin's friend and father-figure, Chester, was a hoot. He too could liven things up with his zany personality, and he even got to have a little romance of his own. The only other stand-out supporting players were A. J.'s family with whom she had a pretty strained relationship, especially her stepbrother, Peter, who ran the family stables. At first he seemed like a real piece of work, a man with a head for business, but who seemed to want to control everything, including A. J. As the story progressed though, we discover that his actions were born of jealousy, and he and A. J. come to an agreement of sorts by the end.
Leaping Hearts didn't have the action, angst or edginess of Jessica Bird's later works, but it was still a good book in a different sort of way. I actually liked the more low-key nature of the story and how Devlin and A. J. have a very comfortable relationship together, both personally and professionally. It's almost like they've known each other forever right from the start. Fans of the BDB, which can sometimes border on the erotic, may not care for the lack of steam. In all honesty, even I wouldn't have minded having a little more in that department, as some of the love scenes were barely there, and even the ones that were a little more detailed were still fairly short. The author does tend to alternate the characters' viewpoints quite a bit within the same scene which usually is rather jarring to me, but in this case, it flowed well enough to not be too much of a distraction which just goes to show what a good author can accomplish.
Every author has to start somewhere, and even though Leaping Hearts was Jessica Bird's beginning, some of the trademarks of her current writing style were already in evidence at this early stage of her career. The colorful analogies and sarcastic humor that I enjoy so much in the BDB can definitely be found here, and although it may not be a good habit, she also does a bit of brand-name dropping. Overall, the narrative was strong and very well-written. It just needed that little extra bit of zing to get to the level at which she writes now. Ms. Bird is definitely an author who showed promise as a natural writer from the start. She then learned and built on that talent over time to hone her craft well, but perhaps even more importantly has learned to take more risks in her storytelling which has paid off in a spades.
Note: Although Leaping Hearts is not officially considered to be part of a series, all of Jessica Bird's contemporaries have connections, therefore, I consider them to be a collective series of sorts and have chosen to read them in the order in which they were published which may enhance the reading experience. I did discover, however, that Leaping Hearts at least, could easily be read as a stand-alone, as the only commonality was a couple of almost negligible mentions of A. J.'s cousin, Carter Wessex, who becomes the heroine of the next book, Heart of Gold.
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