About the book
Whatever souls are made of, his and hers were the same…
Lady Marjorie Acton never expected to manage to convince so many people that she is a man.
When her father, the Marquess of Mortham, announces that she is to marry a gentleman nearly thrice her age, she decides to rebel against him. Under the cover of night and a servant’s clothing, she leaves for the one place that always felt like home: the horse racing tracks.
Evan Sedgewick, Earl of Lanercost and successful breeder of racing horses, can barely believe his eyes when his newly recruited rider emerges victorious from the race, exhibiting unprecedented talent.
But when an accident nearly claims Marjorie’s life, not only is her cover blown, but it also becomes apparent that Evan has a very deadly enemy. One that will stop at nothing to get what they want: Evan’s life and the Acton family’s greatest secret…
The sun was just beginning to climb above the rolling hills that surrounded Windle Manor, a fine mist still clinging to the lush green blanket of the countryside. Alone, a well-dressed but rugged figure entered the stables, rolling back the heavy door with great effort.
“Good morning, Valiant,” the rider called out as sunlight filtered into the darkened stalls. A cream-colored horse whinnied in response, his hooves stamping eagerly against the sawdust floor.
“I don’t suppose you’re up to a long ride today, are you, boy?” the slight woman asked softly, already hefting a pail of fine oats over the door to hang on the hook.
The horse only thrust his velvety nose into the pail in response. He began to munch greedily while his rider began readying his tack and saddle.
“What do you think you’re doing in here?” a stable hand called out from the end of the long, dark hallway. “We don’t take too well to yer kind sneakin’ up in here and making off with our stock! I’ll put the hangman’s noose on you myself, and then—”
The burly man stormed towards Valiant’s stall then stopped dead in his tracks, his face instantly going pale.
“My Lady! I had no idea, please forgive me!” he said in a rush, barely stopping to breathe. “I only meant that is, … I thought you… oh no.”
The young lady only laughed. “It’s quite all right, Mr. Colin. I rather prefer to know you’re ready to defend Valiant—and his friends—with such force!”
“Still, My Lady, your father would have me run out of the county if he’d heard me address you so. I apologize again, truly.” The older man had already removed his cap and stood wringing it in his large, work-worn hands.
The young lady smiled sweetly and put out a delicate hand to stop Mr. Colin from destroying his only cap. She gave him a conspiratorial smirk before breaking into a broad smile.
“I assure you, my father need not know that you were so ardent in your defense of our horses. But I think you misjudge him. He’s a stern man, to be sure, but these horses mean almost as much to him as they do to me!”
“Beggin’ yer pardon that I might argue with you, My Lady, but I’ve never in my life met one who’s so taken with horses as yourself.”
“Perhaps,” she answered with a smile, turning her attention to Valiant and stroking his long, soft neck. “But what’s not to love? They are stronger and braver than any soldier, more gentle and attentive than the kindest governess, more loyal than any friend living or dead. That they love us and trust us so, we who are so undeserving of them, means it is our duty to care for them.”
“Tis quite poetic, My Lady. I, too, think highly of my horses, but even I had not such an affection for them. It does my heart good, as there are some who see these animals as nothing more than beasts put here to serve in labor.” Mr. Colin ducked his head awkwardly when he realized he’d let slip a very personal sentiment.
“True. And to think, these wonderful creatures carry us far and wide, giving us the kind of freedom that could only be matched by a bird in flight!” Marjorie Acton, daughter of the Marquess of Mortham, added, still petting her horse and laughing softly when he lifted his head from his breakfast to nuzzle her hair.
“Ah, yes. To ride! To truly know the kind of speed that this beautiful beast is capable of! Of course, not all feel the need to ride as though they had been set ablaze. I’ve not yet met man or woman who rides quite the way you do, if I may be so bold to say so!”
“No, you may not be so bold!” roared a man’s deep voice from the doorway. Mr. Colin and the girl turned sharply and gasped at the imposing figure framed by the door sill and lit from behind by the now-glaring sunlight.
“Father!” the girl said, still recovering from the surprise. “You gave me a fright!”
“I should say so, Marjorie. What are you doing here at this time of the day? The household hasn’t even awakened!”
“I thought to take Valiant out for a ride before the heat became oppressive, that’s all.” Marjorie ducked her head, letting her long black curls hide some of her shame at being scolded in front of the stable hand. She, a young woman of twenty and mistress of Windle Manor in her mother’s absence, was being reprimanded like a school girl who’d failed to learn her sums.
“And you, Mr. Colin. Do you not have work to do? Or do I pay you a handsome salary to be too forward with my daughter?”
“No, My Lord. I’m sorry. I… I’ll see to my work,” the man stammered before rushing away as fast as his old legs could carry him.
“Father, that was unkind. No one would think Mr. Colin was being too familiar. He’s older than you, old enough to be my grandfather!”
“Hold your tongue, daughter. I will not be subjected to such arguments. As for your ride, you may go out for your ride at a more presentable hour, and you will take your sister and one of the stable boys with you. It’s important to be seen, especially in your finer riding clothes. These old rags you’re wearing… ” he gestured to her jacket and long skirts with a contemptuous wave and a sneer on his face, “belong in the rubbish bin.”
“Father,” Marjorie said in a tearful whisper, “these were Mother’s things.”
For only a moment, the Marquess of Mortham seemed to soften. Charles Acton was known as an unrelenting, even brutal man when it came to business and political affairs, but his one weakness was the memory of his dead wife.
He cleared his throat to push back any hint of emotion. “I see. Then they belong in the attic with all the other memories of her. Not hanging from your frame as you undoubtedly race like a New World savage across the countryside! Return to the house, see to your sister’s morning lessons, then when you dress yourself in a seemlier fashion, you may enjoy a ride this afternoon.”
Her father turned on his heel and strode out of the cavernous stables, the echo of his boots sounding off the many empty stalls. Marjorie could do nothing but fume angrily.
“I have sad news about our escape, Valiant. We’ll just have to endure a ‘pleasant stroll’ around the park later. Perhaps it may not be as bad as all that, though. Harriet is always a cheerful sister and lends an ear for conversation. We’ll just have to pray that old gossip Caroline Howard does not seek to invite herself along!”
Marjorie gave Valiant a quick brushing and started to fill a pail for fresh water when a stable boy raced to take it from her. She thought to argue, but then knew the wrath would fall upon the young boy for letting her fetch it.
As if I’m a hothouse flower who would crumble under the weight of a pail! she thought angrily as she marched back to the manor. How sick I am of tiptoeing through life!
Marjorie instantly felt a flood of guilt. She knew exactly why she wasn’t permitted to ride as she pleased, to go where she pleased, to dress as she pleased.
What care had she for fancy gowns and gossip from the ton? Marjorie might inherit her father’s wealth and title—only long enough to pass it to her husband, of course—but her true inheritance was her mother’s passion for horses.
From even before Marjorie could walk, her mother would take her on daily rides through the estate. It was not at all uncommon for the Lady Mortham to walk into the nursery still tugging her riding gloves on and demand that the tutor release Marjorie from her studies.
“That’s enough Latin for today. There’s far more to learn while riding,” her mother had always said.
Outside, riding high in their saddles as they cantered across one glen or another, her mother had taught her far more than any tutor or governess. Marjorie had learned fluent French and Italian as they rode each day, learned geography by discussing where the best horse lineages came from, learned her math by plotting the siring and breeding and sale of horses in their stables. Barely old enough to climb into the saddle herself, Marjorie could calculate in her head how much their wealth would increase with the foals that were born each season, and how much a brood mare of the finest line should fetch at sale.
Marjorie even knew medicine from spending late nights in the stables with her mother, tending to a wound caused by a protruding fence post or a thrown shoe. She’d even borne witness to a few of the more “forbidden” aspects of breeding and birthing, a fact her mother insisted she keep from both her father and her sister.
“There’s no need to tell all that one knows,” her mother had said about the matter once, but it became a lesson that was ingrained in Marjorie’s mind. There was surely no need to let anyone find out about her solitary rides or the speed with which she and Valiant flew across the land. There were days for wearing her best riding habit and trotting around the park, and days for dressing hardly better than a farm girl and letting her horse carry her away.
Away from her father’s sour countenance. Away from unceasing discussions of dowries and marriage prospects. Even away from her little sister’s hopeful face whenever Marjorie entered the room.
As Marjorie continued her reluctant climb to the house, her feet slowed. She might have to obey her father, but he had not said she had to be quick about it. Intent on walking rather slowly, she was surprised when Mr. Colin stepped out from behind the corner.
“Psst… My Lady,” he began, looking around and whispering. “I’ve saddled Valiant for you! Hurry!”
“What? Mr. Colin! I’m surprised at you!” she replied, her eyes brightening and a smile on her face at last.
“Don’t be too long. If your father comes ‘round, I’ll tell him that one of the lads took Valiant for a ride since the horse thought he was getting to go out and about. You’ll just have to make your own excuses! Now be quick!”
Marjorie raced back to the barn and took the reins eagerly from one of the hands. She didn’t bother leading Valiant out into the fresh air, but rather leapt up in the saddle where he stood, ignoring the stable hand’s offer of a boost.
Outside, Marjorie looked around before nudging Valiant’s flank, sending him off at a good pace. With enough distance between them and the estate, she let him break into a full run, relishing the feeling of the air against her face.
“Hyah, boy!” she called, nudging Valiant a little harder and laughing when he took the command. Soon, they were racing over the fields, splashing through the stream that ran alongside the pathway, leaping over fallen logs.
Too soon, Marjorie realized they needed to turn back. They’d only been gone for most of an hour, but the return ride would take just as long and had the disadvantage of being largely uphill. As she stopped to let Valiant drink from a brook, the sound of approaching hoof beats made her look up.
She had only seconds to throw her hands over her face and leap back, pulling Valiant away from his drink, before another horse and rider were upon them. The other horse bore down on them so fast that it startled, neighing loudly while its rider called out.
“You there!” the young man called out, sliding from his saddle and standing before Marjorie. “Are you hurt? Did we frighten you?”
“I… no, I’m all right. But yes, you did give us a fright. It’s a wonder my horse didn’t bolt,” she answered, trying not to sound too cross with the man.
“My sincerest apologies. I did not realize anyone would be out at this time of the morning.” The young man looked around, taking note of whether anyone else was nearby. He frowned when he saw no one. “Are you alone, Miss?”
“Um… well, no,” Marjorie lied. “But my horse needed to rest so I told the others I would be but a moment. We’ll be leaving to find them now.”
“I insist on accompanying you,” he answered, a sincere look of concern on his face. “This part of the wood has been known to be fraught with obstacles that could cause your horse to stumble. I’ll ride with you, Miss.”
Marjorie was torn. A part of her was chastising herself vehemently for riding so far from Windle Manor and in an unfamiliar place, something that the necessity of avoiding her father had caused. But of course, there were no ‘others,’ as this kindly man would discover. He would know her to have lied, and possibly demand to know why.
“I cannot be the reason you are put to such trouble, sir,” she answered, hoping that her voice sounded confident. “I’m quite a capable rider, I assure you I’ll be fine.”
“Again, I must insist,” he replied, shaking his head. “It wouldn’t do to have you hurt out here so far from anyone’s reach. Let us go!”
Marjorie had no choice but to follow, lest she give herself away. She climbed up in the saddle and took the trail behind the young man until they came to a wider, open path.
“What caused you to take this route today?” he asked casually. “It’s not a place that sees many riders.”
“Oh, just exploring the countryside, sir,” Marjorie said. “My… brother and I were feeling up for a bit of a challenge.” She winced at her own lie, but for her safety she overlooked her dishonesty.
“I see. He must not be much of a caring sort if he would leave his sister to find her own way home. Where do you live, if I may ask?”
“Just a ways up there.” Marjorie pointed in the general direction of her home. “It’s not far now.”
“Not far? I find that very hard to believe. There’s not a house around in any direction for a good while.”
Marjorie’s blood froze in her veins. What was he hinting at? Although the man’s tone was caring, she liked not what his message might imply.
“I’m pleased I happened to chance by then,” he answered. “You’re perhaps more lost than you know. Come, we’ll hurry up apace if your horse is able, and get you back to your brother soon!”
He darted ahead of her, leaving Marjorie to sigh with relief. She clucked softly to Valiant to spur him on, and kept a fair bit of distance between herself and this kind stranger.
When they finally reached the top of the glen and she was able to spy her home in the distance, Marjorie stopped short. She smiled at the person who had safely escorted her, and said her thanks.
“Might I inquire your name, sir? My father will be very grateful for the service you offered,” she said, knowing quite well that she had no intention of informing her father about this excursion.
“Ah, no thanks are needed, Miss! But my name is… Sedgewick.” He faltered for only a minute in giving his name, and Marjorie looked at him strangely.
“Well, Sedgewick, thank you for your assistance. I am most grateful to you.” She nodded and turned to go but he called after her.
“But I do not know your name, Miss!”
Marjorie called out over her shoulder, but she couldn’t be sure if he heard her. She was already riding at a full run, intent on getting home before anyone could notice her absence.
“There you are, dear sister!” Harriet cried in a falsely-joyful tone as Marjorie finally entered the drawing room some time later. The younger girl cast her eyes quickly towards the corner where her father was engaged in a discussion with a man Marjorie had only seen in the ton a few times.
“I tried to cover for you as best I could,” Harriet whispered as she stood and gave her sister a peck on the cheek. “Make your excuses and leave quickly.”
Marjorie pulled back and frowned at her sister in consternation, but Harriet’s eyes widened. She reached out and took Marjorie’s hand, pinching her ring finger gently. Marjorie’s heart sank. Another suitor? So early in the day? It simply wasn’t done, no one came to call at this morning hour.
Of course, neither her father nor the other gentleman—and a gentleman he must be, judging from the cut of his coat and the servant waiting silently behind him—had even looked up when Marjorie entered the room. Could Harriet be wrong? Could this be any other business transaction and not a negotiation for a bride?
“Ah, there’s our young mistress now,” her father said, rising to come to her. His smile was not genuine, and there was a hard glint in his eye. It was almost a warning. “Daughter, it is my honor to present His Grace the Duke of Fenworth, Gregory Balfour.”
Marjorie eyed the older man while fighting to suppress an air of contempt, but her expression softened slightly when she saw the polite smile play across his face. He was far older than she, to be sure, and certainly not a man that even the most nearsighted fool could ever call handsome. But he had a kindly, grandfatherly air about him that was present even before he spoke.
As if on instinct of her extensive tutelage, she dropped into a polite curtsey and answered somberly, “Your Grace. It is a pleasure to formally make your acquaintance. I’ve seen you at some events last season but have never had the good fortune of receiving an introduction.”
“My Lady,” the Duke replied, bowing only slightly but dropping his gaze for a moment. “The pleasure is all mine. I, too, have taken notice of you before—most recently at the Lady Pitoria’s luncheon, I believe it was—but never wanted to interrupt your conversation or steal you away from the dancing to bother you with a simple hello.”
“Oh, Your Grace. I would be far more flattered to have your attention for even a few minutes than to enjoy all the dances in an evening!” Marjorie said dutifully, encouraging their guest while seething inside at her father’s manipulations.
“Lady Marjorie is quite the avid horsewoman and has already been out in the stables this morning,” her father explained, “otherwise, her appearance would be far more suitable.”
My appearance? Marjorie thought bitterly as she instinctively reached to smooth her day dress. It wasn’t as though she was still wearing her mother’s things. What’s wrong with my appearance?
“Don’t be silly, Mortham, she is a radiant flower, if I may be so bold,” the Duke replied, immediately succumbing to a slight blush at being so familiar with someone he’d only just met.
“Not at all, Fenworth!” her father answered with an eager laugh, and Marjorie turned to stare, only remembering at the last moment to close her mouth. Had it only been a few hours ago that her father had chastised an elderly employee for being “too bold” in saying she was an excellent horse rider?
“Lady Marjorie,” her father continued, addressing her formally for the Duke’s benefit, “His Grace the Duke has agreed to a marriage contract.”
“Oh, what wonderful news, Your Grace! I’m delighted to learn that you’ll be marrying soon. Tell me, is it someone I’ve met? Perhaps Lady Bernice McGrath from Kent? I saw her speaking with you at a dinner recently, and you two seemed to have much to discuss.”
The Duke looked even more embarrassed than before, and Marjorie’s father looked furious. She knew better than to hint that the Duke marry the old countess dowager—moreover, she knew thanks to Harriet’s whispered warning that the Duke was there to seek her hand—but she couldn’t help insinuating that theirs would not be an even match, neither in age nor in title.
“Daughter,” her father said through gritted teeth, “His Grace is seeking your hand. I’ve already signed the papers.”
“Oh, I see. Well. Then I suppose there’s nothing more to discuss until we are wed,” Marjorie answered, a quiver in her voice as she fought back the rising nausea in her stomach. “I am grateful, to be sure, and I bid you good day.”
Despite the tremor in her knees, she managed a slight curtsey before turning and leaving the room. Harriet stared after her then looked to her father and their guest before following after her sister. The Duke fought back a sense of disappointment and smiled thinly at Charles Acton.
“I’m afraid the young lady does not find me an enticing suitor,” he managed to say, but the Marquess put a hand up to stop him. He glowered darkly in the direction his daughter had gone.
“Fortunately, Fenworth, it does not matter what she finds enticing. She will be a willing and fertile bride, and that is all that matters. I will see to it, you have my word.”
“Good morning, My Lord,” a cheerful man called out as Evan Sedgewick rode up to the horse paddock astride one of his favorite horses. “Come to see to your newest arrivals?”
“Certainly, Donohue. How are they taking to country life?” the young Earl asked, jumping down from the saddle and handing the reins off to another stable hand, busy watching the skittish animals stepping tenderly in the grass.
“Well, to be honest, sir, it was a rough night.” The horseman sighed sadly. “They’re simply not used to the fine accommodations you’ve provided here. But give ‘em time, I say. They’ll be calmer and a good bit more familiar with the place in no time at all.”
Evan watched the newest arrivals with a mix of concern and pity. They’d been work horses in the city, lashed on a regular basis, forced to stand in the cold and the rain on slick cobblestones. As hired horses, they’d never once felt the soft loam beneath their hooves, never slept in a stable with sound walls and a roof that kept the storms off their heads. He’d been moved to charity when he saw one of them being beaten mercilessly on his last trip to London, insisting on buying all of them from their cruel owner.
“I gots no use for ‘em anyways,” the toothless old carriage driver had scoffed, eagerly accepting Evan’s money. “They proved useless to me. Was plannin’ to sell ‘em to the knacker for glue next month when I close up shop and move to me daughter’s cottage.”
Now, they’d arrived here in such terrible shape that Evan wondered if he’d ever see a farthing’s return on them. Not that profit had been his motivation, he thought with a sheepish smile. Still, it did his heart good to see them walking for the first time on the green grass of his estate, nibbling at the blades with some trepidation, as they’d never tasted fresh grass before.
“If you don’t mind me asking, My Lord, what are you planning to do with such a sorry lot? Surely you won’t be breeding them with your Arabians!” Donohue asked hesitantly.
“Oh no, not at all.” Evan still watched them with interest. “I’ll admit, I acted rashly when I made the offer of gold on the spot, but I’ve already sent out some letters on these animals’ behalf. I plan to give them a year’s respite from the horrors of that cruel employer, then sell them to friends about the county who want gentle animals for their little ones to ride.”
“You mean to put wee children on these beasts? After the way they’ve been treated?” Donohue looked horrified at the thought, but Evan shook his head in surprise.
“Certainly. There’s good in them, you can tell by the way they carry themselves. See how the one chestnut mare is the leader?” He pointed towards the small group who still clung to each other’s sides fearfully. “The others follow her naturally. If we can win her affection, the rest will be quite happy to be gentle. But look, the poor creatures… they’ve never touched a blade of grass in all their miserable lives. They don’t even know how to walk on God’s earth, having only known the misery of the streets.”
The horseman was quiet as he, too, watched the cluster of fearful animals. Finally, he nodded. “I have to say, My Lord, your gesture was truly one of the greatest kindnesses I’ve seen in quite some time. Your father had the same love for his horses that I see in you. It does my heart good to know that these stables and the fine creatures who live here are under just as good a watchful eye.”
“Thank you, Donohue. I wish I could say I deserve the comparison, but I strive to be like my father in every way. He had a reputation throughout the countryside for his kindness and generosity, and his fairness in all his business dealings. I can only hope to live up to his good name and be worthy of such an honor.”
Evan turned to go but stopped short. He turned back then added with a sigh, “But you’re correct, we don’t want them breeding with the racing stock. Let’s keep them in this paddock until I can have another one constructed just for them. The grass is better here, though, they deserve a holiday from… well, their once-miserable lives!”
The Earl took the long way around the front of the manor, enjoying the crisp misty air. As he crested the small hill that led to the stone and marble mansion, he saw his mother taking in the morning sun on the low terrace that joined her quarters.
“Good morning, my son,” she called when he was near enough that she need not shout. “Dare I venture a guess as to where you’ve been?” A smile pricked at the corners of her mouth, betraying her attempt to be stern or aloof.
“Now don’t go scolding me yet, Mother. It’s far too early. Besides, a good admonishment of disapproval is always more effective when the temperature has risen to unbearable degrees!”
Their contempt for one another was only in jest. Evan took the few marble steps in stride and seated himself at her table. He politely waved off a servant who came forward with another cup and saucer.
“No, thank you,” he called back. “I’ll take my meal inside after I’ve gotten done with these boots. My Lady Mother surely won’t have an appetite if she has to smell the horse pens on me while she dines!”
“Oh, Evan, you’re too much. But I’m not feeling up to much of a breakfast this morning, either. I’ve only come outside a few moments ago, you should have some coffee with me before you go on about your day.”
“If it pleases you, Mother. And if the topic of conversation centers only on horses, business, and whether milk or fresh cream is better in one’s coffee,” he said, smirking at her knowingly.
“Oh? You mean, no talk of marriage prospects, I presume?” The Dowager Countess of Lanercost reached for the cup of coffee that had only just appeared and took a slow sip, watching her son over the rim of the fine porcelain cup.
“That’s precisely what I mean,” he answered, refusing to meet her gaze. He’d all but memorized the look she most likely wore, a combination of polite interest, helpful suggestion, and downright intrusion. “I’ve no time at the present to think of these matters, not with the first race of the season less than a fortnight from now. Thankfully, I have the good fortune of not being a young lady, one who will be condemned to spinsterhood by the ton if she’s not well-matched by the eve of her nineteenth birthday!”
Evan stopped short for a moment, cringing inwardly. Both of his sisters, several years older than he, had been married and moved on by that age. It had broken a piece from his mother’s heart each time, having been closer to her daughters than most members of society were known to be. And here he’d reminded her of that fact while seeming to deride the idea.
“Well then, you shall simply have to endure a lengthy conversation about what I plan to wear to the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall’s ball in honor of their son’s return from the subcontinent!” she exclaimed happily, then launched into a full description of the gown. His mother laughed with delight when he pretended to fall asleep in his chair.
“All right then, go on with you!” she finally said, admitting defeat. “But I do hope you’ll be taking tea with me later on.”
“I shall clear my appointments and my dance card for the occasion, Mother!” Evan said, pretending to leap from his chair in his haste to get away. Finally, he came to his mother’s side, kissed her sweetly on the cheek as he’d done as a child, and added in a serious, heartfelt tone, “And when the time does come for me to marry, I have every confidence that you will be a voice of experience and reason who helps me choose the perfect bride.”
As he left his mother to her morning refreshment, Evan pushed back the feeling of irritation that this same topic always inspired. He knew his mother only wanted the best for him, but it was a tiresome subject, one that appeared to be on every person’s mind. He could scarcely move about without someone having cause to mention his marriage prospects, or worse, to push a rather homely niece or neighbor in his path.
“Oh, my Lord Lanercost, fancy seeing you at the party!” some shrill-voiced matron always managed to say, shamelessly tugging the most awkward-looking girl behind her before nudging the hapless thing sharply with an elbow until the creature curtsied and mumbled hello.
Somehow worse than the conniving mothers were the men who were eager to unload their spare daughters to an earl like beef at the butcher shop.
“You there, Lanercost,” some member of the peerage would undoubtedly speak in a low voice on their way to the cribbage table, “you’re not married yet, and I’ve got a respectable dowry of land with a cottage on it put aside for my darling Winifred—”
He’d had enough. His father had only been gone these two years, he was barely out of mourning and attending events again. The ton would surely talk about him if he married so soon after his father’s passing, not that their opinion ever mattered much to him.
And here, the perfect bride would be someone like the young lady I found riding this morning, he thought with wonder. Not only was she fair of face, as though that mattered in the least, but up with sun to go for a ride, stopping along the way to see to her horse’s comfort. Now that is the kind of wife I’ll seek when the time is right!
It was bad enough that his efforts at increasing their holdings in the stables were frowned upon during this time, but if there was one thing his fellow nobles understood, it was that business affairs must continue. He might be permitted to accompany his horses to their races, but apparently, he wasn’t to look as though he was enjoying himself.
Rubbish, he thought angrily. I’m very tired of what opinion others may hold of me. I know who I am, and the man I strive to be. After all, I had an excellent model to follow…
By the time Evan reached his study, he’d managed to put aside his unrest and focus on the tasks that required his attention. The first important race of the season, the Hawthorne Stakes, was in three days. It was to be the first glimpse of his two-year-olds for many in the ton and the breeding gentry. He would need to match the right horse to the right rider, ensure enough victories to maintain his stable’s reputation, and pique the interest of some new buyers.
“My Lord, you have a visitor,” his butler Samuels announced. He stepped forward with a silver tray bearing the guest’s calling card, which Evan took and examined in the sunlight streaming through the window.
“I’m not familiar with this person. Are you?” he asked, looking to Samuels for explanation.
“No, My Lord. But he did insist that it was an urgent matter involving your entrants’ documentation into the Albany Silver Cup races in the summer.”
“Ah yes, the dealer I’ve been corresponding with!” Evan finally answered, remembering the name. “He’s nearly two days’ early, I’d almost forgotten he was due. I’ll see him in the parlor, and please ask Mrs. Darby to prepare a small refreshment in case he’s traveled directly from the port.”
“Yes, My Lord.” Samuels bowed slightly and left to show the newly arrived guest to a more hospitable seat to wait. Evan searched the piles of papers on his father’s desk—his desk, he sharply reminded himself once again—for the letters of introduction that this dealer would need to show his own horses at the event.
When Evan finally left his study and made his way to the parlor, he passed the ancient clock that stood sentry in the hallway at the top of the stairs. He’d loved that clock as a boy, watching whenever the hour was near for the miniscule horses to gallop out of their cubby hole nestled in the clock’s face, race each other across the front, then return to their stalls through the tiny door on the far side of the face. The horses rode on separate tracks made of the thinnest gold strands, so one never knew which horse would win that hour. It had been a gift brought back from his grandfather’s extensive travels to meet the finest breeders in the known world, and it had delighted Evan for years.
Now, it only served to remind him that it was nearly noon and he still had much to accomplish before the day was over. If he failed to tie up all the various loose ends and see to the daily tasks of running this estate, his fortune might very well be at stake.
A light rain had begun to fall by the time Marjorie strengthened her resolve enough to follow through with her plan. It had been one thing to dream up a form of escape, but something else altogether to put said plan into motion. After a morning spent weeping in her room over the cruelty of it all, a chance thought entered her brain and refused to leave.
What if she, daughter of the Marquess of Mortham, were to commit an act of deceit so scandalous that the Duke would never consider marrying her?
That thought was quickly replaced by the image of her mother’s disapproving face, and of her sister’s own tear-stained cheeks when her abhorrent behavior was discovered. No, that would never do. It might be a nice diversion to think of such things, but she would never disgrace those who truly loved her.
But that didn’t mean she couldn’t keep the first portion of her plan. After all, if her fate was sealed, there was no reason not to reach for a small measure of pure happiness before she had to follow through with her father’s greedy plans.
Oh, and greed it must be! Otherwise, how could her father have chosen such an unlikely husband for her? What sort of match would the Duke be? More than twice her age, never married, childless… what had other young ladies possibly seen that had led not only them to flee from his offers of marriage, but even their fathers? Or was it possible that Marjorie was the only daughter in the land whose father cared not about any amount of grief a marriage-prison might bring her?
“Sister? Are you well?” Harriet called through the door after rapping her knuckles lightly against the door. Marjorie sat up, startled, a faint burning in her cheeks as though her thoughts may have been spoken out loud.
“Yes, I’m fine,” she answered, wiping at her cheeks and pressing her fingertips to the puffiness around her eyes. “Do come in.”
Harriet opened the door quietly and closed it without a sound. She took a few hesitant steps towards Marjorie’s bed, then threw herself across the room at her sister, the tears already pouring before she even reached her.
“Oh Marjorie! It’s too horrible! I cannot understand it!” Harriet wailed, nestled in her sister’s arms. “How can Father do this? You know it is not what Mother would have wanted, she would have never agreed to such a thing!”
“Shhh, Father will hear you,” Marjorie said softly, smoothing the light tufts of downy, blond hair away from Harriet’s face. “Besides, it won’t be as bad as all that. The Duke seems like a kindly man, even if he is not so pleasing to the eye. And I’m to be a d-d-duchess,” she stammered, unable to keep her voice from trembling. She cleared her throat and sounded strong once again. “Don’t you remember how we’d play queen of the castle as little girls? How we’d throw lavish balls for our glass animals, and cotillions for our dolls? It will be just like that, I’m sure of it.”
“Oh, sister. You don’t have to be strong for me. I know your heart has broken. You’re going to leave me and I shall not see you again, and all so Father can… so he can…”
“What, Harriet? So Father can do what?” Marjorie pressed, her curiosity burning.
“I sat there as hostess while Father and Lord Fenworth worked out the arrangement. They must not have thought that I could hear, or rather not cared, but I heard it all. You have no dowry! You bring nothing with you! In fact, His Grace is paying Father a hefty bride price in exchange for your marriage! He’s even offered you an allowance for your trousseau… can you imagine? Your betrothed sending over a chest so you can even afford a dress to wear to your own wedding?”
Marjorie turned pale. She held Harriet close as she cried, but inside, her heart ran cold. No dowry. Nothing to claim as her own in the event that something happened to her husband—and with the difference in their ages, that was quite a likely possibility. But worse, what had happened to their fortune? Neither she nor Harriet spent lavishly on silly things, and Father certainly hadn’t improved upon their land or houses. Where had it all gone?
Then there was no other way. She must need marry the Duke, otherwise her sister would be in the same position when the time comes. She would speak to her Father, though, that much was certain. She would demand that a portion of Lord Fenworth’s “payment” be held for Harriet’s interests. Nay, she would demand that her father give a considerable sum back to her husband—how bitter that word already tasted—to hold for Harriet’s own betrothal, lest her father squander that, too.
Her heart sank. She would do no such thing, and she knew it. She could never look her father in the face and make such accusations or demands. They would simply have to live in the hope that he would do the right thing.
“Are you absolutely sure of what you heard?” Marjorie asked, only to be polite. “How could he have some struggles with money when we still have Mother’s horses and the new foals?”
“I’m sure of it,” Harriet said, sitting up and wiping her eyes. “Father sought me out after the Duke left and bade me never speak of it to anyone. Surely, he did not mean you, though. Marjorie, dear sister, what will we do?”
“It will be fine, you’ll see. Do not let it worry you any further. As I said, I will marry the Duke, and all will be well. Come, meet me downstairs and play the piano for me. That will do us both good in lifting our spirits.”
She waited until Harriet had left the room to finish formulating a plan. She might well have to succumb to a marriage she had no hope for, but she didn’t have to give up her freedom… at least not yet. Marjorie worked out a new plan in her mind, one that would grant her a fleeting time of happiness before she fell prisoner.
Marjorie may not be able to do anything about her upcoming marriage, but she could certainly pluck every moment of happiness from her life while she still had the chance… starting with her horse, Valiant.
It will take some foresight and caution, she thought, smiling wickedly to herself as she looked around her room. Perhaps her lady’s maid, Diana, could help. Surely the sweet girl knew someone who could procure the right kind of riding clothes.
Within the hour, Diana had listened to Marjorie’s plan unfold, a mixture of horror and conspiratorial delight on her face.
“Of course, I will help, My Lady! I know just the lad who is about your same height and build. I’ll return presently!”
True to her word, Diana had brought back a pair of tight-fitting jodhpurs, a shirt, a vest, and pair of black leather boots that a young man might wear.
“And you’ll need this,” she’d explained, pulling a wool cap out of a sack. “We dare not cut your hair, but I can style it so that it will all be hidden within. A few tendrils might escape, but some boys have beautiful curls, too. No one should think anything of it.”
“I dare say that being flushed from my ride should also help keep it tucked away,” Marjorie had said, agreeing that the cap would do nicely. “But what are these?”
She held up several lengthy strips of cheap muslin, and Diana blushed a deep crimson.
“They’re for… well, you’ll have to bind up… My Lady’s ample…” Her voice faltered, and she merely gestured to Marjorie’s bosom. Marjorie laughed.
“Ah Diana, you’ve thought of everything! How foolish of me, I never would have considered it, and I’m afraid I would have given myself away!”
“But, My Lady, can you even ride astride a horse? Have you not always ridden in the lady’s way?” Diana asked, genuinely fearful for her mistress’s well-being.
“Oh, yes. Mother insisted on it whenever we rode apart from anyone else. She always said that riding side-saddle was courting danger, even when riding at a leisurely clip. It would take only a small creature startling the horse for it to bolt, throwing the lady from her saddle. I’ve even seen girls my own age take a fall when the horses merely stepped painfully on a rock. Of course, Mother and I were known to race across the glens like outlaws, so we always rode thus.”
Marjorie’s face clouded for a moment as she remembered the last time she’d ridden so hard with her mother. It had been the last time they’d ridden, the last her mother spoke or opened her eyes. She shook off the sad memory and smiled gratefully at Diana.
“Will you help me dress?”
“Of course, My Lady. I’ve done it for years, there’s no sense in stopping now!” she said with a light laugh. “But it might take some work on both our parts to achieve the desired effect. I shouldn’t have to say it, but I’ve never dressed a man before!”
“Perhaps we should ask Father’s valet to help!” Marjorie teased, but Diana didn’t return her smile.
“Oh, dear. You must not have heard.” Diana looked away and lowered her voice, even though the two of them were alone. “Your Father has dismissed Mr. Logan.”
“What?” Marjorie cried out loud before clamping a hand over her mouth. Her eyes grew wide and Harriet’s earlier words haunted her. “How could he? Mr. Logan has served him for years! He even went to the Continent with Father during his years of service!”
“I know not all of the particulars, but I do know this. Mr. Logan was accused of theft,” Diana whispered, the shame of it coloring her own features.
“It’s not possible,” Marjorie countered, shaking her head. “Mr. Logan would never. And though Father may be acting strangely—even cruelly—as of late, that would be too low even for him. He absolutely mustn’t believe such a thing!”
“My Lady, it pains me to say so, but some of the household think it might have been a way… a way to simply end his employment.”
“Why would Father want to do that?” Marjorie asked, but Diana didn’t answer. She looked down at the muslin in her lap, picking at a loose thread and avoiding her mistress’s gaze.
“I see. Money,” Marjorie finally answered. “It always has to be about that, doesn’t it? And if you had no money but dare not say so, what better way to end a contract than with a heinous accusation?”
“Many of us are fearful for our positions, I’m heartbroken to say,” the maid said by way of an answer. “Not only that I don’t wish to leave, but where would any of us go with that kind of accusation marring our reputations? No one in the country would hire us on! We would nae find work as so much as a washerwoman, let alone serving in a noble household!”
“Diana, dearest Diana,” Marjorie said, shocking the other girl by taking her hands in hers, “it will not come to that. If I cannot prevent anyone’s dismissal, please know that you will receive the most glowing letters, all of you! I will write them in my hand personally, extolling your virtues and recommending you throughout the region. The Queen herself would employ you when I’m finished!”
Diana laughed weakly but nodded her head. “It does me much good to hear it, My Lady. It takes a great weight off of my shoulders, and I know it will do the same for the others.”
“Think nothing of it. Every member of this household has served us with the utmost care. I will not see that ruined for whatever reasons my Father cooks up! Now, I must dress and make my escape.”
“Escape? I did not imagine you were running away! My Lady,” Diana cried, “you would break the engagement and be gone?”
“Oh no! I shall return presently. But I intend to enjoy some moments of freedom before I’m shackled before the vicar!”
The house was quiet when Marjorie crept down the servants’ old wooden staircase and stepped into the kitchens. The midday meal had passed—she herself had taken a tray in her room, on the pretense that she was so bothered by the news of her marriage that she couldn’t come down—and the preparations had not yet begun for the evening meal.
Marjorie took a moment to glance into the larder and the pantry, wondering how dire their situation might be. She was taken aback to see it fully stocked with fresh fare, much of which did not grow in their own fields. She was relieved to see it as it meant there must be some misunderstanding in the books, then faltered when she realized it might have been purchased on credit.
“Father will be selling Harriet to the butcher before long,” she mumbled bitterly, then reminded herself not to be unkind. If there was any truth to the fear that he was in dire straits, he could have made a far worse match for Marjorie than the Duke of Fenworth.
She continued on her way through the kitchens and out into the yard. Beyond the gate, she took a long footpath that wound past the washing house and the storehouse to the stables. The path was seldom used and had become overgrown in places, but thankfully her boots were up to the task. She stumbled once or twice in them as they were much too big, but the heavy bottom and thick heel would do her well in the stirrups.
“Longer strides,” she reminded herself, keeping Diana’s coaching in her mind. “Drop your arms, swing them some, lead with the heel. Shoulders slumped, you’re no lady today!”
She laughed lightly and then shushed herself lest anyone hear her delicate voice. Diana had given her fits of laughter while correcting her stance and her gait. It had taken the better part of an hour before Marjorie could comport herself with even a passing resemblance to a male.
Worse was the task of undoing years of good manners. She was no highborn daughter today and must not act as such. A haughty tone and erect posture were required of a firstborn daughter to a marquess, but as a stable boy, she smelled too fair and wasn’t nearly filthy enough, despite the smears of soot Diana had applied to her face and clothes from the fireplace.
Marjorie reached the stable door from the side and peered in, looking for anyone who might call her out. Even Mr. Colin was to be avoided, simply because she had no intention of burdening him with her secret. If she should be found out, or worse, if she should be injured, it would be upon his head for not stopping her.
“Whoa there boy, it is only me,” Marjorie said in a soft voice when Valiant kicked at his stall door. At the sound of her voice, he calmed. “Are you ready to go for a ride?”
There was no time for his bucket of oats, she had to trust that he’d eaten well that morning. Instead, she hurried to saddle him and put his bit in place, then positioned his bridle securely. She left the reins dangling from his tack while she opened the great door, then hurried to lead him outside.
Keeping her head down under the brim of the cap until she was well away from the stable door, Marjorie flung the reins over Valiant’s head, put her left foot in the stirrup, and pulled herself up over the saddle. She kept the horse to a trot as they turned away from the stables, forcing herself to keep it slow to avoid catching anyone’s eye. As they neared the hedgerow the followed to the main road, she allowed Valiant to gallop at a faster clip.
It was only once she reached the road that she urged Valiant into a full cantor, intent on making it to the local race on time.
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