The moment A.J. Sutherland saw the sleek black stallion named Sabbath, she knew. She just KNEW he would be a champion jumper. The stallion's hellish reputation notwithstanding, she saw him as pure gold and bought him at auction over the strenuous objections of her stepbrother, the contentious pain in the hindquarters who runs the business side of her wealthy father's stables. A.J. was resolute, however, and with one signed check she committed herself to a whole new life. Her decision gets her new horse banned from her family's stable and herself steamrollered by her stepbrother's quick snatch of the power to control her.
With her options limited to fleeing or submitting to him, she makes a mad dash towards freedom, but the reality of the situation hits her hard. She's now more or less homeless, with nothing of her own but some well-worn tack, a horse no one but she believes in, and a burning desire to prove them all wrong. Committed to entering and making a good showing at a prestigious jumping competition in a mere two months, A.J. throws herself on the mercy of the one man who she believes can help her. The one man she desires most...in all ways.
Devlin McCloud had been a superstar in the sport of showjumping, having won just about every major competition he'd entered in the past decade, before a brutal and career-ending fall almost a year ago crushed his leg and forced him to put down the horse he loved. Since then he's been wallowing in self pity, cut off from the life and sport that meant everything to him.
Until the day he went to auction and saw a fiery woman stare down an intractable horse.
For the first time in a very long time, desire heated his blood and tightened his veins, but when he first hears A.J.'s ridiculous proposition that he train her, he shuts her down fast. That part of his life is over. Looking into her eyes and telling her no when she shows up at his house in the middle of the night, desperate after her family ditches on her, however, proves to be the truly impossible task. She's obviously in need of help and has nowhere to go with the bad-tempered but promising horse she'd purchased.
Whether she had the mettle to stick it out and go the distance isn't the question, though. It's whether he can keep his hands off her and his desire in check while he helps her do just that.
Before she stormed onto the paranormal romance scene and became beloved as the Warden, J.R. Ward started her illustrious career writing contemporary romance as Jessica Bird. Within Leaping Hearts there are few glimpses of the romance- and urban fantasy-writing powerhouse she's become, but those glimpses will satisfy die-hard fans and/or hard core romance lovers, especially horse fans. And I did love the scenes that featured Sabbath and the world of horse jumping. It was just the rest of it that gave me problems.
The main characters A.J., pampered princess striving for independence and respectability away from the shadow of a wealthy father and cold stepmother, and Devlin, wounded antisocial hero still troubled by his past but captivated by the effervescent A.J., were likable, if pedestrian main characters. I didn't have a problem with either of them, really. They had some depth to their personalities, and the intensity of their mutual attraction, their chemistry, and their shared love of horses and jumping were very appealing.
Most of my issues with the book revolve around the plot. That it was formulaic wasn't a surprise, nor is it a particular gripe of mine. It's rare when a contemporary romance isn't formulaic in one way or another. The problem here is that within the formula, plot points didn't work, didn't get satisfactorily resolved, weren't given enough development, or got dropped completely.
I prefer relationships that build more slowly than they did between A.J. and Devlin, but that's a personal preference and very subjective. Still, in this case I felt doubly disappointed because the horse training threads were so successful and Sabbath such a good focal point for the story that the romance didn't need to be rushed like it was. I would have been more interested if the two had built up the tension as they were settling Sabbath down and bringing him along.
A.J.'s issues with her family were handled half-heartedly and haphazardly at best, and a conflict resolution with her stepbrother was completely anticlimactic. I found her father's actions, especially after she buys Sabbath, fairly reprehensible and her stepmother was a bitch, so it was disappointing that those issues weren't really addressed or resolved to my satisfaction. I like it when people get what they so richly deserve, and it didn't happen here.
I think the inevitable relationship conflict between A.J. and Devlin was weak and felt contrived, Devlin's behavior surrounding it rather inexplicable, and the final resolution abrupt and forced. Several scenes concerning that plot thread didn't track for me, and I was again left unsatisfied when ancillary issues about his fall and the death of his horse got brushed aside in lieu of his focus on A.J..
And there was a huge plot hole concerning his cane and the severity of his injury. The book starts nearly a year after his accident and Devlin's mobility and flexibility are still limited enough to warrant a cane, his stiffness and pain still significant enough to be a huge issue to him, yet just six weeks later in the timeline of the book he's running around sans cane, no mention of his injury beyond a passing reference to his scars and no regard for or attention to the physical limitations from the damage done. Not very believable.
There were just too many things that seemed a bit off for me to really like the book, but there were also enough things that I enjoyed to keep me from disliking it. As a debut book from a new author, it didn't really do justice to the incredible popularity Ward eventually achieved with her Black Dagger Brotherhood series, nor was it as appealing as some of her more recent contemporary romances. It lacked a lot in the way of complexity, depth, and originality...though it did have a real cool horse that should have been given more page time.
It was just okay for me. Fortunately for a lot of happy readers, Bird aka Ward got a lot better.
Reviewed for One Good Book Deserves Another.