Greetings! My name is Leigh Dillon, and I’m delighted you stopped by to visit. Believe it or not, this story originated as my National Novel Writing Month project for 2017. The challenge is to write 50,000 words in a single month, which is exactly novella length. Then I discovered that the great state of Virginia had been left on the table in the open call for States of Love. In that instant, Raising the Bar was born.
Like most NaNo projects, RtB started out rough. All right, more than rough. I knew where the plot was going, but the two main characters, Destin and Tonio, arrived as total strangers. There was an awkward getting-to-know-you phase, where we all shuffled around shooting each other furtive looks and grinning for no reason. Then Tonio got tired of the pussyfooting and introduced himself. Next thing I knew, I was fielding a barrage of revelations and the occasional TMI. Then Destin spoke up, and I began to see that my simple opposites-attract idea was a lot more complex than I realized.
For one thing, if any character has a right to feel confident, it’s Destin. He’s the golden boy from a wealthy family. He came into the world with inherited status, received the best education, and entered adulthood cushioned from financial struggle by a generous trust fund. Yet somehow, as he developed, he came out wracked by doubts and insecurities.
Tonio, on the other hand, has no reason at all to be as cocky as he is. He’s a poor kid from an unstable background, with a father who’s a bottom-feeding trainer in one of America’s most glamorous big-money sports. And to top it off, Tonio is openly gay. His self-assured swagger just has to be overcompensation for a crippling inferiority complex, right? But no, some people crumble under pressure and some toughen up like a well-tempered knife blade. Tonio got tough.
I’d love to say that Tonio is the character most like me, but alas, being a chronic worrywart, I’ve stood in Destin’s shoes more often than Tonio’s. My excerpt is all about the contrast between my two characters. Which one is most like you?
The lookout stood just below the peak, an open space with a sturdy bench on one side and a view over patchwork fields and pastures and woodlands on the other. Destin and Tonio tied their horses to a tree and walked to the edge of the overlook, soaking in the God’s-eye perspective.
Bellmeade would look so small from here. Destin drew a breath, inhaling the damp, clean, bitter-leaf fragrance of the mountainside. Insignificant—that was the word. All his problems shrunk down to the size of the Christmas village his mother had set up every year.
If only it could be that easy.
A nudge on his arm broke Destin’s reverie.
“Whatcha thinking about?” Tonio asked.
“I’m wondering what you’ll do if Sam doesn’t jump and Bellmeade goes under,” Destin said. Blurted, rather. The thought had been gnawing away at the back of his brain all the way up the mountain. He hadn’t intended to give voice to it, but he needed an answer.
Tonio shrugged. “Same thing I always do when I lose a gig. Go down to Florida, check out the winter action, see who I can butter up for a ride. Believe it or not, people forgive, even fuckups like mine.”
Another question had also been nagging, and Destin chewed the inside of his cheek, willing his heart not to pound. “And if this thing works?” he said, trying to keep his tone casual. “If it turns out you can stay?”
Tonio tipped Destin a sidelong look. “I’d still be your main rider. Right?”
“Yes.” The word came out a little croaky, and Destin cleared his throat. “Do you think you would also consider a, uh, managing partnership in the farm?”
Tonio glanced away, then looked back at Destin, a peculiar gleam dancing in his eyes. “I dunno,” he said. “Is the farm owner part of the package?”
Is the farm owner….
Destin turned his head and stared at Tonio, struggling with the words that had just left his mouth.
Part of the package?
“What did you say?”
Tonio’s sly smile turned into a full-on grin. “You want a written proposal? I meant it when I kissed you in the parking lot that time. You’re hiding behind the curtains all coy, playing it cool, but I’m pretty sure you’re interested in me, too. Am I in the ballpark?”
“Yes,” Destin said, the word coming out in in a laughing gust. “Yes. If you want him, the farm owner is absolutely part of the deal, and why in God’s name didn’t you say something earlier?”
Check out Raising the Bar today!
Blurb: Destin Bellingham has inherited a problem. Thanks to his late playboy father, Destin faces putting a For Sale sign on his family’s historic horse farm. Getting his talented stallion, Black Sambuca, into the Grand Prix show ring would put Bellmeade back on the map—if only someone could make “Sam” behave like a show horse.
Disgraced top rider Tonio Benedetto has his own problems, but he can work magic with difficult jumpers, so Destin hires him despite his bad-boy reputation. The street-smart, openly gay loudmouth from Miami and the closeted, buttoned-down son of Old Dominion Virginia make a rocky pairing, but time is running out to save Bellmeade from bankruptcy.
Opposites attract, sparks of tension grow into flames of passion. But if Tonio fails to tame Sam, will true love become a lost cause too?
Bio: Leigh Dillon is a native of horse-happy North Central Florida but has deep family roots in the Virginia and West Virginia areas. Coming of age in the dinosaur days of cable television, when fledgling channels filled their empty blocks of programming time by airing entire equestrian competitions, Leigh’s young brain became infected with a lifelong mania for show jumping, three-day eventing, and other exotic horse sports. Though tragically denied a pony of her own in childhood, Leigh has wreaked her revenge by including equine characters in almost everything she writes.
A bookbinder and librarian by trade, Leigh has also worked on local thoroughbred horse farms. Leigh’s short fiction has been featured twice in the Florida Writers Association annual story collection, and one of her book-length works received Book of the Year honors at the 2017 Royal Palm Literary Award.