Fact: Those strict Victorian morals of the times might better have been called Albertan morals, because it was really Prince Albert who brought a sense of steadiness and adherence to family values to Victoria’s life and her court. At 18 and after being so oppressively controlled during her childhood,Victoria was only too happy to party long into the night once she became queen. She was stretching her wings, and who could blame her. Along with that heady sense of freedom, however, came some emotional upheaval that sometimes led Victoria to make hasty and ill-advised decisions. I mentioned two of them earlier this week.
It was pretty much accepted in Victorian society that men had affairs. After all, decent women really “didn’t enjoy sex,” so as long as husbands were discreet it was all right for them to indulge their baser appetites with prostitutes and mistresses. Sounds fair, right? Like hell! Albert, for one, didn’t agree. His parents had both engaged in adulterous affairs until their contentious marriage finally ended in separation. This apparently devastated Albert, and he grew up with the fierce conviction that nothing was more important than family and being loyal to one’s spouse. He was also a quiet and studious young man, and brought that calming influence to Victoria’s stressful life. He even managed to negotiate a kind of truce between Victoria and her estranged mother, because it was important to him that their children know their grandmother. The one person who did inspire a bit of jealousy, however, was Victoria’s lifelong governess and friend, Louise Lehzen, who continued to cast her influence over the young Queen Victoria. Albert resented that influence because he felt it prevented Victoria from relying on him, and one of the first things he did once they were married was convince Victoria it was time to send Lehzen home—to faraway Germany.
Excerpt: (in which Holly searches for Victoria’s stolen colt…)
“What can one family possibly do with all these horses?” Holly whispered in response to the sleepy snort that greeted her at the next stall. She ran her hand up the horse’s nose, moving the mane aside and checking for the Ashworth star. This one had it. As she had done several times already, she unlatched the stall gate and stepped in. First she checked to see if this animal was a colt. Then she hesitated, waiting for . . .
Good gracious, for some magical quality to come over her. She simply didn’t know what she was supposed to feel when—if—she finally encountered Prince’s Pride. Victoria had said she would know, that she would sense the colt’s remarkable superiority.
She felt nothing but the heat wafting from the animal’s flanks, sensed nothing but that this particular horse had suddenly awakened from his doze and noticed her intrusion into his stall.
His head swung around, one large velvet eye regarding Holly with a gleam of surprise. The flank beside her quivered and shook, a back foot stomped. The tail swished in agitation.
“There, there now,” Holly cooed gently. “It’s quite all right. I don’t believe you’re the fellow I’m searching for, so I shall be going now.”
But as she attempted to retrace her steps, the horse shifted his formidable bulk and blocked her path.
“It’s all right,” she whispered again. “If you’ll only move over a bit . . .”
She moved alongside the animal, smoothing her palms over his flank as she went. The action seemed to have a calming effect. The tail switched back and forth but the horse stood his ground and tolerated Holly making her way back to the stall gate. She reached the colt’s front shoulder and stretched her hand toward the latch—
The barked demand startled her and she let out a cry of alarm. With a whinny, the horse lurched and tried to swing about; his massive shoulder struck Holly and shoved her off balance. She landed on her rump in the hay.
Footsteps advanced toward the stall at a run. Holly attempted to gain her feet while the colt stomped and thrashed dangerously about his stall. Head down, Holly thrust her arms up in front of her and shimmied back as tightly against the side wall as she could to avoid the frantic hooves.
The gate was thrown open, and a pair of hands made a grab for the colt’s halter. The horse fought and shied, trying to find a means of escape within the close confines of the stall.
“Miss Sutherland,” Lord Drayton called out as he struggled to gain control of the animal, “have you been injured?”
“No, my lord.” He maneuvered the horse to one side, allowing Holly room to stand. She wasted no time in scrambling to her feet and out of the stall.
Lord Drayton spent the next few minutes soothing the horse. Finally he secured the gate, and turned to regard Holly. “You’re quite certain you’re all right?” he said very low, in a queer tone that spread goose bumps across her back.
She nodded, then crossed the aisle and stood beside him, in front of the stall. As if the past moments hadn’t happened, the horse stuck his head over the gate and calmly nudged her with his nose. “Is the colt all right?”
“He’s done no harm to himself that I can detect.”
“I’m sorry, I . . .” She heaved a sigh. “I keep saying that to you today, don’t I?”
A powerful hand closed over her shoulder. “Come with me.”
Just as earlier, his touch cast her into a state of bewilderment. Barely aware of her surroundings, she let him convey her down the aisle, around a corner, and out into the night air. She thought he’d turn toward the house, but he chose the opposite direction, walking with a purposeful stride, one that made her hasten her steps to keep up. Then he came to an abrupt halt.
Empty and silent, the paddocks, racetrack, and pastures beyond spread like a moonlit patchwork before them. The hush unnerved her, as did the silence of the man beside her, charged as it was with an emotion that pulsed off him in waves. He’d taken her hand and tucked it into the crook of his arm, and as they stood side by side, she stole a glance at him. His nose pinched and his jaw sharply square, he stared hard into the distance. She could only guess he was searching for words adequate enough to rebuke her for her foolishness.
When she could stand it no longer she swallowed and said, “I’m sorry. I only wished to see the colt up close.”
“The fault was mine, Miss Sutherland. I shouldn’t have sneaked up on you as I did.” He broke off, turned her to face him, and seized her hands with the same intensity as earlier that day on the terrace. “You could have been seriously injured.”
She found herself toe-to-toe with him, dwarfed by his greater size, the breadth and strength of his shoulders, his broad chest. As he stood poised above her, his face was a fierce shadow framed by the night sky, his eyes gleaming with the sharp clarity of the stars.
The emotion blazing in those eyes made her look away, gasp for breath. And then she realized what he’d said and looked back at him. “You purposely sneaked up on me.”
With a sheepish lift of his brows, a quirk of his mouth, he nodded and released her hands.
“You thought I was . . . ?” She didn’t finish the question, for the obvious truth was that he’d suspected her of doing exactly what she had been doing: spying. Her pulse rattled a warning she was glad he couldn’t feel.
“I am extremely protective of the horses,” he confessed. “The racing world is not an entirely ingenuous one. Rivalries and greed often drive people to extremes.”
Her heart thudded against her stays. Had he been driven to an extreme act? She wondered how close she had come tonight to discoveringVictoria’s colt. Perhaps no more than a stall or two away.
His expectant look broke into her thoughts. It was her turn to say something, and she realized that despite his apology, he waited to gauge her reaction to that last statement. He was testing her as much as she was testing him.
If ever she needed to deceive, it was now. For Victoria. For her country.
“And you thought perhaps I was . . . up to no good?” she said with a touch of dramatic flair. Feigning astonishment, she pressed a hand to her bosom. “You thought I might be ferreting out the secrets of the Ashworth racing success?”
His lips pursed, and one corner lifted in a lopsided grin. “It does sound rather ridiculous when spoken aloud. But you were inside the stall, Miss Sutherland. Surely you realize how unusual that appears.”
“But how can one properly judge good horseflesh without getting as close a view as possible?”
Eyebrows drawn, he seemed to weigh this statement. “You do realize you were on the private side of the stables, where we keep our own horses.”
Indeed, she’d been very much aware of that fact. She widened her eyes. “Was I? Then I must have misunderstood your sister earlier. I could have sworn . . . Well, there has been so much to absorb today, I don’t wonder I got it wrong.”
The crickets and night rustlings filled her ears, became all but deafening as he studied her and she willed every muscle in her body not to quiver, not to give her away. Suddenly exhausted by her game of deceit, she wanted to demand what he was looking for, and what he was hiding. Perhaps it was a delayed reaction to nearly being trampled beneath the horse’s hooves, but she wished for the safety of her hotel room, where she might bury her face in her pillow and . . . goodness . . . cry. Let flow tears she couldn’t explain. She knew only that her heart suddenly ached, and she longed for relief.
“Return tomorrow for a private tour of the stables,” he suddenly said. “And a ride, if you wish.”
He nodded. “If you like.”
“I would like that very much…”
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