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—

“Who’s there?”

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.”

What? “Really?”

He nodded. “If you like.”

“I would like that very much…”

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Fact: Most people know that England’s inheritance system was based on primogeniture, meaning that titles and estates were always passed down intact to the eldest son, leaving younger sons scrambling for means of supporting themselves, often by purchasing a commission in the military or entering the clergy. Primogeniture usually involved an “entail”, which basically said the estate – the family seat at least – was legally tied to the title and could not be sold or divided up in any way. This ensured that great estates stayed that way, rather than be chiseled away to become smaller and smaller with each generation by dividing it among siblings. If there was no eldest son to inherit, the next in line might be a nephew or cousin, etc. Except in extremely rare cases, daughters could inherit neither the title nor the entail. This system often led to impoverished gentlewomen with very little means of support other than family charity. And so we have the Dashwood Sisters of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that property or wealth not included in the entail, for instance revenues from other sources such as independent investments, smaller inheritances, or property purchased separately, could be left to anyone the owner wished, including women. There were no laws that said women couldn’t inherit and own property, but they rarely did. The reason? Women were believed to be incapable of managing their finances – they would no doubt squander the inheritance, or be cheated out of it. Most fathers therefore avoided leaving anything to their unmarried daughters, or if they did, they assigned a guardian or trustee to oversee things, which basically left her at his mercy. If a woman was married, of course, her husband immediately gained full control of any wealth she inherited. By the way,Victoria was no great proponent of women’s rights. On domestic issues she typically deferred to Albert’s judgment, and she had no patience for the growing suffragette movement. I know, you’d think…

Excerpt: (Yesterday we saw Colin in action. Today it’s Holly’s turn…)

Perched sidesaddle, Lady Sabrina cantered once around the paddock, catching Holly’s eye as she rode past her and flashing a grin Holly couldn’t help returning.

The filly, Sport o’ Kings, glided in and out of the obstacles, its stride smooth and steady. “Oh, Lady Sabrina is quite good,” Holly exclaimed, her pulse accelerating even as the young woman quickened the pace.

Beside her, Mr. Bentley grumbled, “If their father were at home, he’d never allow it.”

“Allow what?” Holly tilted her head at him, though she kept her eyes on Lady Sabrina. She took the first jump smoothly, but as she approached the next, the animal balked, threw his head up, and swerved hard to the right. Unprepared, Lady Sabrina wobbled in the saddle.

Gasps shot through the spectators. She quickly recovered her balance, but the horse’s footing remained erratic. It shied away from the next obstacle and again, the sudden motion threatened Lady Sabrina’s balance. She hung on and tried to steady the animal, but to no avail.

“She’s in trouble,” Holly announced to no one in particular.

“Good God, not again,” replied a voice she hadn’t expected.

Lord Drayton stood at her shoulder, his brow knotted in a scowl of concentration.

Sabrina came around the paddock toward them, her horse kicking up enough dust to attract first Colin’s attention, then his concern. He studied the animal’s stride, heard the faltering beat of its hooves striking the ground. Around the fence, spectators pulled back and covered their mouths to ward off swirling clouds of earth.

“It’s become a battle of wills,” Miss Sutherland said softly. The breeze shifted, bringing her spicy scent to tantalize his senses. For a moment he forgot his sister and thought only of the beauty beside him. What had she and Bentley been talking about?

Bentley—if ever a man had been in danger of having his neck snapped, he had in those minutes he’d claimed Miss Sutherland’s hand. And yet what business was it of Colin’s whose hand she held? She wasn’t his. She could never be. Period.

“My lord, your sister is typically a proficient rider, is she not?”

The urgency in her voice snapped him back to his senses. “This isn’t at all like Sabrina,” he said. She seemed to be doing all the wrong things and making matters worse. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Sabrina, ease up and go with her, not against her.”

The filly stopped, lurched, and attempted abrupt changes in direction while Sabrina fought to hold her on course. Miss Sutherland leaned forward over the rail. “Something must be done. If she doesn’t loosen the reins, she risks rendering the animal head shy.”

The term set off an alarm inside him. “I’m not about to let that happen.”

He strode to the gate, swung it open, and entered the paddock. Sabrina came round again, still clearly struggling, the filly increasingly agitated. Colin moved into their path, his arms extended to attract the filly’s attention. The animal knew him; he’d conducted the greater portion of her training and had long since won her trust. He could have approached her in any field, held out his hand, and within moments had her nibbling oats from his palm.

Not today. When she saw him, her eyes rounded and her nostrils flared. Colin sensed her apprehension just before she whinnied and swung wide. The filly reared and Sabrina’s little plaid riding cap flew off. Colin’s gut clenched as he expected his sister to tumble to the ground after it, but her well-honed sense of balance kept her in her seat.

Colin started toward them again. He was still some yards away when hoofbeats surged from behind him and a lengthy shadow swept past him.

Holly didn’t wait to see if Lord Drayton would meet with success. As he hurried to his sister’s aid, she hefted her skirts and ran to the opposite enclosure, where other horses awaited their turn in the paddock. The closest horse to the gate was a bay, already saddled and tied to the rail.

“Miss? Excuse me, but what on earth do you think you’re about?”

Holly ignored the groom and pulled herself into the saddle. With no time for niceties such as adjusting her skirts so she could approximate a sidesaddle position, she slipped her feet into the stirrups. The youth’s face was a streak of ruddy color as she urged the colt past him.

“Miss! Come back here! You can’t—”

The colt’s energy pulsed beneath her like surging ocean waves. She must be careful or she could just as easily lose control and find herself in the same predicament as Lady Sabrina. She glimpsed Lord Drayton’s face as she rode past him, saw his surprise give way to consternation and then anger. She took no heed as he shouted her name.

Sport o’ Kings danced about, shaking her head and pulling at the reins, giving Lady Sabrina a jolting ride. It appeared the young woman could barely manage to hang on. Praying she could keep the colt calm, Holly urged him to the filly’s side.

“Give her her head and allow her to follow my lead,” Holly called softly to Lady Sabrina. The girl nodded and carefully loosened the reins.

Holly wagered on a horse’s instinct to run in a pack, and on the filly and the colt having a rapport. The filly acknowledged the colt’s presence with a twitch of her ears and a momentary easing of her erratic movements. Holding her breath, Holly stole the opportunity to squeeze with her knees and set the colt to an even, comfortable lope.

With a burst of triumph she watched the filly take her cue from the other horse. Matching his pace, she fell in beside him, her stride smoothing and elongating. After a lap around the paddock, Holly ever so gradually slowed the colt to a trot, then a walk, and then finally brought both animals to a halt.

Sport o’ Kings’s fatigue showed in her snorting breaths and her quivering, sweating flanks. Holly leaned over to run the flat of her hand along the filly’s damp neck. Lady Sabrina’s hands shook where they lay in her lap, still clutching the reins.

Lord Drayton ran up to the filly’s side. “Are you all right?”

Her brow furrowed, her gaze pinned on the black mane in front of her, Lady Sabrina nodded faintly. Her brother raised his arms to grasp his sister about the waist. She leaned in to him and allowed him to lower her to the ground.

“You were fighting her, Sabrina,” her brother said quietly. “You know better than that.”

“She has never behaved that way before. . . . I don’t understand it. . . .” Lady Sabrina regarded the filly, standing calmly now and rubbing her head against the colt’s neck.

As Lord Drayton and his sister continued their murmured conversation, Holly became aware of the twittering onlookers.

My goodness, did she really ride in astride?

Did you see how her skirts flew up to expose her ankles?

She did save the day, albeit in a rather scandalous manner.

Her family? They’re nobody, really. . . .

She glanced around at the shocked and curious faces, her cheeks heating. The urgency of the situation had sent her scurrying for a remedy, the only one she could think of. Only now did she realize how she looked to the others, sitting astride in the saddle with her skirts tucked round her legs and her ankles on display. She remembered the earl’s angry look as she had ridden by him. Her heart sank and her cheeks flamed hotter.

“Miss Sutherland?” He had moved beside her horse, and stood with his arms extended to her.

“Lord Drayton, I am sorry. I only thought to . . .”

“Yes, but not now, Miss Sutherland. Please, just let me help you down.”

His hands braced her sides at her waist, and what should have been a simple gesture of assistance set off a firestorm of confusion inside her. She forgot to lean and set her hands on his shoulders so he could lift her from the saddle. She knew only that he touched her as he had never touched her before, and that she wished him to go on touching her, touching more of her, touching her endlessly. His hands were strong and warm and sure, as she had always known they would be, all those times she had peeked at them and tried to imagine them on her.

She’d gotten her wish, but to what purpose?

“Miss Sutherland, is something wrong?” Oblivious to her untoward musings, he lowered his arms. “You seemed in control, but perhaps you were injured?”

She shook her head, more to clear it than in reply, so aloud she said, “I was not hurt, my lord.”

Why do you suppose she just sits there?

Can you hear what she is saying to him?

The continued speculation sent fresh waves of heat climbing from her chin to her hairline.

The earl raised his hands to her again. “If you please, then.”

“Oh, yes. How silly of me.”

She set her hands on his wide, sturdy shoulders. He seemed to bear her weight with no effort at all. As he lowered her to the ground, she leaned more fully in to him—she couldn’t help herself—and her thighs brushed his, and then her breasts briefly grazed his hard chest, sending a shock of awareness through her.

“There you are,” he whispered. Her feet touched the ground, but he didn’t release her. They stood toe-to-toe, bodies no longer touching but close enough for his heat to penetrate her clothing, for his breath to graze her cheek, for her lips to feel drawn to his as if by a magnetic pull…

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Fact: Horseracing didn’t only take place on public tracks.England’s gentry and nobility were heavily invested in the racing world. A good number of wealthy families were breeders, and while it wasn’t a particularly lucrative field, since the cost of raising racehorses often exceeded the financial rewards, there was a certain status involved. Amateur horseracing on private estates was a fairly common practice, a way to show off horseflesh and the skills of breeders and trainers. Some even went so far as to build small racecourses on their grounds.

While women could in theory own racehorses, and they certainly flocked to the racecourses each season sporting their finest daytime attire, they were barred from entering horses in any official races. It was forbidden by England’s prestigious Jockey Club, the committee in charge of setting up all the rules of English horseracing – and, by the way, made up not of jockeys but men of wealth and influence. Are we surprised this “old boys’ club” refused to let women join in the fun?

Excerpt:

A note on a horn stifled conversations and sent the spectators vying for places along the fence. A gate opened and six men entered the course, all in knee-high boots, lambskin breeches, and smartly tailored riding coats.

Lord Drayton was among them, standing nearly a head above than the rest. He went to the side of the horse he had pointed out to her—Cordelier—a magnificent bay with dramatic ebony points, not like those that had pulled his phaeton yesterday, but taller, sleeker, and with the distinctive Ashworth star above his eyes. Like the colt Holly had seen inVictoria’s mews, except that this horse was clearly more mature and more powerful about the flanks and shoulders.

Nimbly Lord Drayton set his foot in the stirrup, his thigh muscles rippling beneath his form-fitting breeches, and with no visible effort he swung up into the saddle. Holly had been used to Colin Ashworth the scholar and scientist, an observant man attuned to the minutest of details. As she watched him now from a distance, he became, not the scientist, or the acquaintance who perplexed her, but a figure that commanded attention, that exuded power and confidence. For the first time she found herself glimpsing the essence of the man and all his finer qualities—his breeding, his nobility, his authority. It was none of it blatant, but implied in the relaxed set of his shoulders, each deft flick of his hand, each calm word he spoke to his horse.

Gripping the rail, she leaned out, absorbed in the potency of his nobleman’s profile—the intelligent brow, the determined nose, the square and obdurate chin.

“Holly, if you aren’t careful you’re going to tumble over the fence.”

Ivy’s warning brought her back to her senses. She blinked, and was taken aback to recognize another of the riders, just now approaching the mount that stood beside the earl’s.

“Is that Geoffrey Ashworth?”

Willow shaded her eyes with her hand. “I believe it is. Why, I wouldn’t have thought it. He was so retiring when we met him last autumn. I’d think him too timid for racing.”

“He’ll surprise you, then,” Ivy said with a secretive smile.

Lady Sabrina strode through the gate and stood on the swale a few feet beyond the horses. How splendid she looked, as confident and commanding as her eldest brother, with her bright curls tamed at her nape and her feathered cap tipped to a rakish angle. The breeze gently flapped the neat little tails of her riding jacket and filled her skirts, affording fleeting glimpses of red-trimmed boots.

She raised a blue flag over her head. Taut energy rippled through the air. The crowd stilled. The horses stood frozen but for the eager quivering of their flanks. Holly held her breath, excitement building inside her. On either side of her, Ivy and Willow stood at rigid attention. A whistle blew, and Lady Sabrina snapped the flag down to her side.

The horses thundered past, the noise and the momentum stealing Holly’s breath. She forgot all else as the race absorbed the whole of her attention. The line of Thoroughbreds spanned the track until they reached the far corner. Then they stretched out into a single-file line, all vying for the innermost position.

They came around, passing Holly and her sisters again in a blur. She leaned forward and tried to make out Lord Drayton among the knot of riders, then saw his hair flash gold in a shaft of sunlight. Around her, people waved hands in the air and cheered their favorites on; caught up in the enthusiasm, she found herself calling out Lord Drayton’s name, and that of his stallion.

They rounded the far curve again, and as they neared the straight Lord Drayton edged his horse to the outside and began putting several horse lengths between him and the other riders. But another came on close behind him, then alongside. The horses’ flanks brushed, and even from here she saw Lord Drayton’s triumphant grin fade beneath a sudden apprehension.

Gasps flew among the spectators.

“They’re too close!”

“They’ll tangle!”

“They’ll fall!”

“Why, isn’t that young Geoffrey?”

Holly’s knuckles whitened against the rail, her nails digging into the wood.Willowpressed against her side. Ivy’s lips moved stiffly in urgent, silent prayer.

#

As they pounded into the eastern curve, Colin tightened his knees, pulled back slightly on the reins, and pressed one heel snug against Cordelier’s flank. The stallion slowed almost imperceptibly, but enough. At the same time, Cordelier eased to the right, giving Geoff and his mount enough room to make it around the bend without both horses’ legs tangling. Colin held his breath and kept firm, trusting Cordelier to keep his pace even.

Rock steady . . . the stallion didn’t let him down.

From the corner of his eyes he saw Geoffrey blow out a breath of relief, the fear in his eyes fading. It had been close. But it hadn’t been all Geoff’s fault, not entirely.

As they’d come down the front straight for the second time, Colin had spotted Holly Sutherland, a blur of red curls framing her face, her impossibly green eyes pinned on him as if to guide his every move, as if she alone could deliver him unharmed to the finishing post. He’d even heard her shouting his name.

Damn it, he knew better than to allow a distraction from the crowd to break his concentration. He held his gaze directly in front of him now as he gave Cordelier his head and let the stallion glide past the finishing post….

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Fact: The Ascot Racetrack had fallen out of fashion and into disrepair during the reigns of George IV and William IV. In fact William didn’t care much for horseracing at all. Though maybe that’s hardly surprising – he wasn’t exactly a spirited young man during the seven years of his reign. What brought the Royal Ascot back into fashion and made the Ascot Racetrack one of the most famous in the world began with a single occurrence: the attendance of England’s new, young Queen Victoria during the first year of her reign.Victoria attended the opening day at the races with her beloved Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, and the racing public found her so fresh and lovely and lively that suddenly everyone wanted to converge on Ascot for the races. During the next year, the stands were expanded and upgraded to provide luxuries and concessions for wealthy and middle class racing enthusiasts alike, or “turfites” as they were called.

Such is the power of celebrity. In fact, only a few years later, a picture of Victoria, husband Albert, and a few of their young children around their new Christmas tree circulated throughout Great Britain and America. Though holly and evergreen boughs had been part of the Christmas tradition, the notion of the Christmas tree was a new one, brought from Germany by Prince Albert. It was an instant success on both sides of the pond!

Excerpt:

Outside the Ascot Racecourse:

A sudden rumble snapped Holly out of her musings just in time for her to spot a sporty, open phaeton swinging out from between the stands. The vehicle barreled down the lane straight toward her. Scrambling to move out of the way, she darted across the road but realized the driver swerved in the same direction in his effort to avoid her. With the phaeton almost upon her, she could chance about-facing and hurrying back across the road . . . or dive into the roadside foliage.

Holly dove.

She landed facedown in a bed of peonies and primroses and something that prickled. Tiny pebbles pelted her back, and she heard hooves crunching on gravel and wheels skidding to a stop somewhere behind her.

An instant later, as she attempted to untwist her skirts from her legs, a pair of boots landed with a great thump beside her. A pair of strong hands closed around her upper arms and began lifting her from the ground.

“Madam? Good heavens, madam, are you hurt? Did the carriage strike you? Can you speak?”

All this rushed out in a deeply rumbling baritone, and a familiar one at that, before she was even upright. Her bonnet had tipped askew, covering one eye, and with the other she peeked out from under the brim. Could the man who had nearly run her down be who she thought he was?

Could she be so lucky?

She reached up and shoved her errant bonnet back off her brow so hard it slipped off and bounced from its ribbons against her back.

“Madam, I am dreadfully sorry. I never expected anyone to be walking to the course today and was not paying proper attention—”

As his mouth dropped open she drew a steadying breath. “Lord Drayton, good afternoon.”

He gaped at her for more seconds than any self-respecting earl should ever gape at anyone or anything. “Miss Sutherland?”

She nodded, unnecessarily of course, for disheveled though she may be, there could be no question as to her identity. Colin Ashworth knew her well enough.

“But . . .” His apparent astonishment could have been no greater than if she had fallen out of the sky. “What are you doing here?”

“I . . . er . . . that is . . .” With the back of her fingers she brushed tattered flower petals from her lap.

“Good grief, forgive me.” He slid an arm around her back and, rising, gently pulled her up alongside him. For a few tantalizing seconds she savored the strength of his arm around her. Then it slipped away. His hand, however, hovered just beneath her elbow, as though he feared she might suddenly swoon. He bent his face close to hers, his sharp blue eyes roving over her until her skin heated. “Are you quite all right? Do you require a physician?”

“No, no, I’m fine. Truly.” She paused a moment to assess the accuracy of that statement. She felt no blood trickling from anywhere, nor anything more serious than a dull ache in her hands and knees from when she’d struck the ground. She smiled an assurance. “No lasting damage. Oh, but I cannot say as much for the flowers.”

A Holly-sized depression marred the perfect symmetry of the flowerbed that lined the drive from the road to the portico of the royal stand. Lord Drayton gazed down at the crushed chaos of pink, yellow, and violet, released a long-suffering breath and shook his head.

“Flowers can be replanted,” he said, yet the shadow that momentarily darkened his countenance suggested he regretted the demise of the flora more than he cared to admit. True, as a top breeder of Thoroughbreds, Colin Ashworth was a member of the Jockey Club, which meant that everything to do with the Ascot Royal Meeting would be of vital interest to him.

Even, she supposed, the gardening.

Then it struck her: his claim of not expecting anyone to be walking to the course today smacked of an admonishment, as if he blamed her for being there. He would never say as much, of course, but that flicker in his eyes betrayed a hidden emotion. . . .

She shrugged away the thought as he held her hand and helped her step back onto the gravel lane.

“How coincidental that of all the people I might nearly have run down today, it should be you, Miss Sutherland,” he said. “What will your sisters think of me?”

“Actually, I believe the word is providential, my lord, for I’d hoped to run into you while in Ascot. Not literally, of course, but all the same.”

A FEW MINUTES LATER…

Colin watched his sister sweep Miss Sutherland away, unsure if he should be annoyed or relieved. Surely now, with distance between them, his pulse would ease back down to its normal pace.

Not that he believed for a moment that his sister played the accommodating hostess out of purely unselfish reasons, or that she had developed a sudden admiration for Miss Sutherland. Sabrina was toying with him, no doubt devising ways she might use Miss Sutherland to strike back at him for his failure to intervene when their father withheld his permission for her to marry Frederick Cates…

…Sabrina seemed intent on pressing her advantage with information Colin had months ago predicted he would have cause to regret. At Ivy and Simon’s wedding, his astute sister had quietly studied him, noting his every movement and expression, until, satisfied she had guessed the truth, she had confronted him with a shrewd smirk.

Why, brother, it appears you are quite taken with the new Lady Harrow’s sister. A former shopkeeper, no less.

Don’t be ridiculous.

Oh, but your scowl tells all. You like her, but you don’t wish to like her. . . .

It had been the red hair that had first caught his notice. He had always loved thick, fiery curls, and Miss Sutherland possessed those in abundance. He’d never forget that morning soon after the wedding when he, Simon, Ivy, and Miss Sutherland had gone out riding together at Simon’sCambridgeestate. Miss Sutherland’s cap had gone flying off and her hair had tumbled down her back. . . .

Whether she’d noticed or not, she’d kept riding, urging her mount faster until she had opened a substantial distance between herself and the others. Worried for her safety and leaving Simon and Ivy behind, Colin had spurred his mount to catch up, only to discover her completely in control and barely winded from her gallop. When they’d finally stopped beside the river to rest the horses, she’d turned to him with laughter spilling from her generous lips, joy glittering in her verdant eyes, and her wind-tossed curls dancing like flames about her rosy cheeks.

To this day he didn’t know if it had been the red hair, the laughter, or the realization that here was a woman unafraid to express her delight. What a refreshing departure from the icy debutants the society matrons forever tossed in his path, prudish young women who wanted him for his future title and fortune and little else.

That day, he had discovered countless tiny details about Miss Sutherland that he liked—liked exceedingly well. But that hadn’t stopped a single, formidable obstacle from standing between them.

He was the Duke of Masterfield’s son, and from an early age he’d known it was his duty to marry an heiress, a woman who would bring land and further wealth to augment the Ashworth holdings. More important to Colin, he was Thaddeus Ashworth’s son. He bore a scar or two to prove it, and there was no way in hell he’d ever bring an innocent, ingenuous woman like Holly Sutherland within arm’s length of a man like his father…

~

Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of RECKLESSLY YOURS and/or a $15 e-gift certificate! Stop back each day through Sunday for more chances to win! Winners will be chosen by Random.org on Monday.

I was going to wait till tomorrow to post the first excerpt, but what the heck, let’s get started!

Fact: Queen Victoria’s reign wasn’t always a smooth one. In the early years, before she married, she made some very human mistakes – and let’s not forget she was only 18 when she took the throne – mistakes that upset a lot of people. There was the Flora Hastings affair. Flora Hastings was a friend of Victoria’s mother who became one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting. Right there, she had a strike against her, and Victoria was certain the woman was spying on her and reporting back to the Duchess of Kent. Then Flora became ill with a stomach tumor, and Victoria accused the woman of being pregnant out of wedlock. It caused an awful scandal and did much to hurt Victoria’s credibility.

Then there was the Bedchamber Crisis, whenVictoria refused to change her Whig ladies-in-waiting for Tory, or Conservative, ones, despite the fact that Robert Peel, himself a Tory, was now prime minister. He was so put out by Victoria’s refusal that he immediately stepped down, allowing Victoria’s favorite, Lord Melbourne, to take up the reins of government once more. While these incidents might have been forgiven and forgotten, anti-royalist sentiments were growing in Great Britain, and the so-called “Radical Reformists” seized any opportunity to strengthen their bid to do away with the monarchy. In these early years,Victoria’s position was a tenuous one.

Luckily for her, she had the Sutherland Sisters, who were willing to risk their lives, hearts and even their virtue to protect their queen and friend!

Excerpt: (How it begins…)

Windsor,England

Spring 1839

…Holly and the footman threaded their way through a maze of courtyards, stables, and outbuildings, Roger’s steady pace prompting her to grit her teeth to keep from asking him to please hurry. Voices reached her ears, along with the clanging and clunking of the stable hands beginning their morning tasks. She rounded a corner into another enclosure, where a team of workers scurried back and forth carrying buckets, brushes, rakes, and armfuls of snaking tack. They seemed to have reached the very heart of the mews. The footman stopped before a heavy-looking door, reached into his pocket, and brought out a jangling set of keys.

She was surprised to step into a cozy room furnished with a faded but comfortable-looking settee and a small oak table and chairs; a cheery fire flickered in a small brick fireplace. The effect was of a slightly shabby retreat, the furniture too worn to remain in a drawing-room but adequate enough to accommodate the queen’s hunting parties.

“Her majesty’s private salon, miss,” Roger explained, confirming Holly’s guess. “Do make yourself comfortable, if you please.” With that, he turned on his heel and left her alone. She had no choice but to contain her impatience and wait.

It was all very puzzling. But even more puzzling had been the note Roger himself had delivered, only hours ago, to the Knightsbridge Readers’ Emporium, the London bookshop owned jointly by Holly and her sisters.

Dearest Holly,

I need you—and only you. You must come to me at Windsor at once! Tell no one. Except your sisters, of course. But please make no delay!

                                           Yours,

                                            V

She’d barely had time to comprehend the note’s meaning—that, like her sisters Laurel and Ivy before her, she was being called to the service of her country—before she had found herself scurrying to pack a bag, bid her sisters goodbye, and board the waiting brougham. Without further explanation, she had been whisked out of the city and across a moonlit countryside.

A clatter of footsteps echoed in the hall. Just before the door swung wide, Holly jumped up from the settee. A petite figure swathed in a cape of sumptuous forest-green velvet swept through the doorway, andEngland’s queen flipped back her hood and stretched out her hands. “My dearest Holly, thank goodness you are here!”

They rushed to each other, and Holly found herself enfolded in an embrace that for several lovely seconds renewed every sweet facet of the friendship that had marked her childhood years.

Here before her stood the only real friend she and her sisters had known during their sheltered upbringing at Uncle Edward’s country estate—and vice versa. As heir presumptive, little Princess Victoria had been allowed precious few influences beyond those of her mother and John Conroy, a man who early on had designs on controlling the throne Victoria would eventually occupy. At her mother’s insistence, the common-born Sutherland sisters had been tolerated against John Conroy’s advice only due to their father’s military ties toVictoria’s father, the deceased Duke of Kent.

The past, with all of its childish secrets, promises, hopes, and dreams, flooded Holly’s heart as she pressed her cheek toVictoria’s. They had been orphans together, the Sutherland sisters and this dear, lonely little girl. But asVictoria’s importance to England grew, Holly and her sisters were deemed less and less suitable to be her companions.

Now she was their queen and could acknowledge their friendship openly if she chose to, which she did not because of one imperative matter.

We will always be your friends . . . your secret servants if need be. Holly and her sisters had spoken those words to the child Victoria nearly a decade ago, on a sunny summer’s day in Uncle Edward’s rose garden. At the time, none of them could have guessed what that pledge would lead to. In the past year, Laurel, the eldest, and Ivy, Holly’s twin, had each risked death in the service of their queen, though neither had quite explained to Victoria the dangers they had faced.

Risk, danger, fear . . . the vow had incurred all that and more for Laurel and Ivy. And now—oh, now it was Holly’s turn to finally stray from the safety of everyday life and embark on her own adventure.

Did that frighten her, even just a little? Good heavens, yes. It was a sensation that made her feel alive, vibrant, important. . . .

Victoria’s arms came away, and Holly stepped back to gaze into her friend’s face with a smile she could hardly restrain. “What is it you need me to do?”

Victoria rattled off her needs like items on a shopping list. “Prevent an international incident. Save the monarchy. Save me.”

Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of RECKLESSLY YOURS and/or a $15 e-gift certificate! Stop back each day through Sunday for more chances to win! Winners will be chosen by Random.org on Monday.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The cranberry sauce is made and the girls are getting ready to put the pumpkin pies in the oven. The turkey has been defrosting in the fridge for days, and everything else is waiting to be peeled, mixed, etc. in the morning. We’re a small group for dinner tomorrow but it’ll still be a lot of work – but I don’t care. I love this holiday. Yes, even with all the family dysfunction. We just smile and move past it. OK, sometimes I have to send a few pointed glares around the dining table, especially if the talk turns political. But the point is, in the end we all appreciate being together.

Tomorrow I’m taking a break from worrying about anything I can’t control. I won’t turn on the news, so THOSE people won’t drive me crazy with doom and gloom. And I’m definitely not planning on getting on line at midnight for Black Friday bargains. Instead, I’m going to enjoy having the family together. I’m going to eat too much and enjoy every bite, and WILL NOT FEEL GUILTY ABOUT IT. Later I’ll put my feet up and relax, and hopefully watch some sappy holiday movie. Sounds good to me!

How will you celebrate the day?

Zesty Cranberry Sauce: one bag of cranberries, one cup of water, one cup of sugar, orange zest, orange juice. Boil water and sugar, add cranberries, and return to boil. Stir gently while cranberries pop and make the house smell amazing. As it thickens, grate in some orange zest and squeeze in some juice. When you’ve got a nice, thick consistency, remove from heat and let cool to room temperature before refrigerating.

Our Pumpkin Pie: we follow the recipe on the can of pumpkin except for one thing – we cut the cinnamon in half. We’d rather taste the pumpkin with only a hint of cinnamon. 🙂

The Secret of a Perfectly Cooked Turkey: Shh…come closer. Are you listening? OK. For a juicy and tender bird, you don’t have to buy the expensive brand. I never do. The secret is…those pop-up turkey timers that you can buy separately. Seriously. When that puppy pops, the turkey is ready. Works like a charm.

Have a wonderful day! Gobble gobble!

What is it with adolescent girls and horses? If you don’t know what I mean, then maybe that particular bug didn’t bite you when you were younger, but when I was about 10 or so, I suddenly became all out horse-crazy. All I wanted to do was ride, be around horses, become a jockey like Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet.

My parents put up with it, but they hated the whole idea of me riding. It was dangerous. Horses are big, dumb animals that can’t be trusted, etc., etc. I guess I can’t blame them. Horse are big! But dumb? Not in my experience. They’re like any other domesticated animal. Establish a rapport with them, earn their trust, and you’ve got a loving, loyal friend. I was never lucky enough to own a horse, but I took lessons and rode as often as I could, and a couple even became my special friends through the years.

Even now, I can’t explain why so many girls turn horse-crazy. But I do know that during a time of such physical and emotional upheaval, riding is a fantastic confidence-builder. I was about 11 when I started riding. I was a tiny kid and not particularly athletic in the usual sense, but learning that even without muscles I had the ability to control this huge animal filled me with pride and a real sense of accomplishment.

It was also more fun than anything, exciting, and absolutely liberating, as close to flying as a human can come without actually leaving the ground. There’s nothing like galloping across a field with the ground blurring beneath you. Nothing like soaring over a jump (and realizing you’re still in the saddle, lol). Nothing like the focus and rhythm that takes over while your troubles and concerns melt away. And that’s something every girl needs.

I rarely ride anymore, but I remember the feeling, and I remember how much I loved it. And I’ve put all those treasured memories into Holly, the heroine of RECKLESSLY YOURS, whose vow to serve the queen sends her on a quest to recover a stolen Thoroughbred colt. Her love and affinity for horses makes her the perfect person to find the colt, until the question arises as to what’s best for this extraordinary animal. Then, suddenly, Holly’s love for horses…and her growing love for the very man who stole him…threaten to undermine her loyalty to queen and country.

In a very personal way, this is a book of my heart. I hope it becomes a book of the heart for every reader who ever fell head-over-heels in love with horses and riding. RECKLESSLY YOURS will be out on Dec. 6th!

That’s me at about 12 years old.

Were you/are you a horse lover? What else were you passionate about when you were growing up?

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