Posts Tagged ‘giveaway’

The Exmoor Pony is the oldest breed of native pony in Great Britain, first domesticated by the Celts. They are  stocky, sturdy animals, known for their hardiness and resistance to many of the diseases that affect most other breeds of horses. I first read about them years ago, and the notion of an ancient, almost mystical breed of pony running wild on the moors and mountains of Devon captured my imagination and wouldn’t let go. The seed of Recklessly Yours was planted then. In the story, Colin is protecting a herd of Exmoors, although in his own words, he belongs to them much more than they could ever belong to him. His fate, and that of his family and those who live on their Devonshire estate, is closely tied to his ability to do right by these exquisite creatures.

If you’d like to read more about Exmoor Ponies, here are some links:

www.exmoorponysociety.org.uk
http://www.exmoorponies.co.uk/
http://www.horseshowcentral.com/ponies/exmoor_pony/376/1

Excerpt: (In which Holly is attempting to avoid a gang of angry villagers outside Colin’s estate on the Devonshire Moors…)

Beyond a doubt, she had taken a wrong direction. As she raced around the rheumatic twist of a dead rowan, the stream, foaming furiously, wound its way across her path and brought her to an uncertain halt. Some dozen yards to her left, a very different footbridge from the one she’d first crossed spanned the flooded banks. This one, made of wood, appeared much older and narrower than the other. She sprinted to it only to discover the planking to be faded and splintered, even broken in places. The structure hardly looked trustworthy.

Another glance behind her revealed no sign of either the villagers or the man in the greatcoat. Had they given up their pursuit, or slipped into hiding to await her next move? She scanned the horizon ahead of her and to her great relief detected the corner of a chimney scraping the sky. The rain began to fall harder, obscuring her vision.

Grabbing hold of the rail, she gingerly placed a foot on the first plank. The bridge trembled slightly but otherwise seemed solid enough. The way across couldn’t be more than a dozen yards, a stone’s throw. If she went quickly and remained light on her feet . . .

Halfway across, the bridge sagged beneath her weight. The stream lapped at her feet, shocking her toes with frigid water and making her afraid to move in either direction. Logic demanded she continue forward, but her next step produced a resounding crack.

The slat splintered in half and one foot fell out from under her, plunging calf deep into the racing water. She gripped the rails with both hands and for several seconds clung to hope. Then the bridge shuddered and broke apart. Holly felt herself falling, splashing into the frothing, frigid water, engulfed in her own terror and the relentless current.

#

Deep into the valley a mile and a half from Briarview, Colin shortened Cordelier’s reins to slow the stallion’s pace. The Exmoor ponies coursed around him and pounded past, their ranks narrowing as they surged between the rocky granite tors that ringed the valley’s eastern rim. Cordelier came to a restive halt, snorting and pawing the ground while the last of the herd disappeared at a gallop.

As the trembling of the ground stilled and the air quieted, the euphoric thudding of his heart eased and the rush of blood through his veins calmed. They were his responsibility, those ponies, and his duty to protect them brought him joy he never spoke of, not to another living soul. However much his father believed he owned the herd that roamed his land, Colin knew the ponies belonged to no man. They belonged to the earth, to tradition and legend. They were free, and only by the dictates of their collective will did they tolerate an outside presence among them.

As they tolerated Colin and Cordelier. As a boy he’d discovered that all he needed to do was ride out across the moors, and the ponies would gallop with him, accepting him as one of the herd. He didn’t understand it, but the realization had dawned that he belonged to them far more than they could ever belong to him. True, they needed his protection from those who would separate or abuse them—men like his father—or those who would destroy their native habitat, but he needed them just as much, for it was only with them that he felt truly alive.

He laughed out loud at the notion, a bitter sound bitten off by a rainy gust. Ironic that it took a herd of wild ponies to remind him that he was a free man with passions and dreams of his own, and not merely Thaddeus Ashworth’s heir. Here, on the upper reaches of the Devonshire moors, with the ground coursing beneath him and the sky stretching above, the pounding of hooves drowned out the cynicism and self-doubt his father had planted inside him at an early age.

At least, all that had been true as recently as two days ago. Now, however. . . .

The conviction had filled him that with Holly at his side, he had the power to break free of whatever curses, real or imagined, held him and his family. With her in his life, he might finally know happiness.

Sucking a draft of soggy air deep into his lungs, he swung Cordelier about and headed for home. Bringing Holly into his world would more likely change her life for the worse, than his for the better. It was not a chance he’d willingly take.

He neared Briarview’s forested acreage, preparing to jump Cordelier over the stream that looped around it. He leaned low over the stallion’s dark mane just as a tangle of rotten, broken boards rushed by on the water. Screams pierced the wind. Colin lurched upright in the saddle, prompting Cordelier to bounce to a stop. Colin pricked his ears, and another desperate cry sent Cordelier rearing up on hind legs, his front hooves thrashing.

Colin’s blood ran cold. The old footbridge. With a tap of his heels he and Cordelier set off at a gallop.

In less than a minute he came upon a half-submerged flurry of dark skirts and white petticoats; a pair of hands groped frantically at the air. Holly’s desperate face appeared briefly in the foaming waters. The current closed over her, flipped her around, and thrust her upward again. All Colin could see of her now were glistening, streaming ribbons of red hair. His heart rocketed into his throat. Oh, God . . . oh, God.

“Holly!” he shouted, “I’m coming!”

He turned Cordelier again and urged him to a full-out gallop along the bank of the stream. As he went, Colin slid free of the stirrups and slung a leg over the stallion’s neck so that both his feet dangled toward the water. Holding his breath, he waited until he rode up even with Holly, and then passed her by several long paces. In a few more yards the watercourse would narrow slightly—enough, he prayed, for what he intended.

A tightening of the reins slowed Cordelier to a canter. Colin mentally counted to three, then propelled himself from the saddle, hitting the bank with a force that clacked his teeth together. Using the momentum, he slid down the bank into the water. Submerged chest deep, he fought past the chill and battled the current to reach the middle of the stream.

His arms outstretched and his feet braced as solidly as possible against the rocky stream bed, he waited as swirling fabric, streaming hair, and Holly’s white, terrified face rushed closer. She hit him with an impact that knocked the breath from his lungs. His feet threatened to slip, his legs to swing out from under him. He closed his arms around her and she went limp against him, her own arms hanging slack, her legs tangling with his. The water clawed at her saturated skirts, almost prying her loose from his arms.

Clutching her tighter, he called on all the strength he possessed to hug her to his chest. He sidestepped toward the far bank, where the overhanging branches of a willow tree skimmed the current. Limbs stiff with cold and muscles aching from the exertion, he fought his way closer to the tree and chanced lifting one arm from around her. Reaching out, he gripped a branch and hauled himself and Holly out of the water and onto the muddy bank.

Her eyes closed, her body wilting against the ground, she showed no signs of consciousness. On his knees beside her, he swept the sodden snarls of hair from her cheeks and cupped her face in his hands. “Holly. Oh, God . . . please . . .”

He rubbed her cheeks, hands, and arms in a desperate attempt to force the blood to flow. Hunching over her, he slipped an arm beneath her shoulders and lifted her against him, pressing his lips to her forehead, to her mouth. Then he remembered something vital. As her sister had once done for Simon after an experiment had nearly killed him, he opened her mouth and breathed into her, forcing air in and out of her lungs. All the while he prayed and raged and promised God anything . . . anything. . . .

A sputtering cough sent dizzying relief all through him. Her eyelids fluttered, and a racking cough shook her frame. Over and over she coughed, cringing from the force, her shoulders wrenching.

Twisting away from him, she doubled over, her face hanging low over the ground as she gagged and purged the stream water from her lungs. Helpless to provide relief, Colin thrust an arm across the front of her shoulders to support her while with his other hand he gathered her hair and held it back from her face. Each convulsion echoed through him until the tension flowed from her body.

“What . . . happened?” Her head hanging, her voice came as a tremulous flutter. Wiping shaky fingers across her lips, she gazed feebly up at him. Her image blurred before his eyes, obscured by tears he couldn’t prevent. He felt her cold palm against his cheek. “You saved me.”

Then her hand fell away and she collapsed against him in a dead faint.

~

Last chance to leave a comment to be entered in my giveaway. There are three copies of RECKLESSLY YOURS and a $15 e-gift certificate, and I’ll be choosing the winners Monday with Random/org. Check back to see if you’ve won!

And if not, click on the covers below to see where you can find Recklessly Yours, and books 1 & 2: Most Eagerly Yours and Outrageously Yours…

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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…”

Comment for a chance to win one of three copies of Recklessly Yours or a bookstore e-gift Certificate. Winners will be chosen on Monday.

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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…

 You know what to do – leave a comment to be entered in my drawing for three copies of Recklessly Yours and one e-gift certificate to a bookstore!

Recklessly Yours releases this coming Tuesday!

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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…

~

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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.”

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Answer the question at the end for a chance to win a copy of Outrageously Yours!

Today’s excerpt…

Set-up: Ivy Sutherland is at Cambridge University to investigate Simon de Burgh and find out if he has the queen’s stolen stone. She entered a competition to become his new assistant, but she’s pretty sure she botched her chances. Yesterday she learned some unsettling things about the marquess. Today he comes storming into her life…

(by the way, after wearing dresses all her life, Ivy finds men’s clothing less liberating than she’d imagined. Trousers trick her mind into thinking her legs are tangled in her skirts – see what happens)

From Outrageously Yours… 

A pounding at the door made them all jump. With a quizzical look, Lowbry went to answer it.

“Lord Harrow!” he exclaimed, then quickly recovered his composure and stood aside. “Welcome, sir. To what do we owe the—”

“Sorry to barge in on you like this.” In a bound, the marquess crossed the threshold. Ivy’s pulse thudded at the sight of him, speeding to a frantic pace when he scanned their stunned faces and demanded, “Which one of you is Ivers?”

*

For several resounding ticks of the mantel clock no one moved, no one spoke, no one dared to breathe. Then, one by one, the gazes of the others settled on Ivy as though she had just been accused of some shocking crime.

Ivy glared an appeal to each of them. Hadn’t they taken her under their wing, made her part of their tight little group? Hadn’t she accepted their ribald jesting and vile-tasting spirits with good grace?

Yet with hardly a blink they’d abandoned her, or so it seemed to Ivy, who now felt as awkwardly conspicuous as a peacock in a snow drift.

Her mind raced with questions. Could she possibly have won the challenge? There had been that brief, glorious moment when she had believed she had answered Lord Harrow’s questions with singular brilliance. But no sooner had she handed her papers to Mr. Hendslew than she had realized how parochial and downright idiotic she must have sounded in comparing science to poetry. She had approached the challenge not like a scholarly gentleman, nor even like a woman, but like a silly, sentimental girl. Her skin ran hot with shame at the memory of the drivel she had composed.

And yet…Lord Harrow was here, and he was staring at her.

“Are you Ivers?” His cape flaring out behind him, he bore down on her, prompting her to back away until her heels struck the wall beneath the window. She might have tumbled out had Lord Harrow’s hand not shot out and snared her wrist. “Careful, lad. Now that I’ve found you, I can’t have you plummeting to your death. You are Ivers, are you not?”

Her head trembled as she nodded.

“Good.” Lord Harrow released her, stepped back, and gave her a terse looking over. “You’re the hand-raiser,” he accused.

Ivy nodded several times, short, jerky motions that made the Mad Marquess dance in her vision.

His lips drew tight, and Ivy felt sure he had come to disqualify her from the challenge. A frantic apology ran through her mind, but then he gave a nod of his own. “Come with me.”

With that, he turned and strode from the room, tossing out a brisk, “Gentlemen,” as he went. After an instant’s hesitation, Ivy took off after him.

*

St. John’s Chapel

Simon made his way back out to St. John’s Second Court. The chapel bells rang out the noon hour, a familiar, comforting sound. He had been a St. John’s man himself, although his rooms had been in the residence halls of the First Court.

 

The boy’s rapid footfalls echoed from inside the stairwell. A moment later the lad stumbled outside – literally.  As if his feet had tangled in an invisible web, young Ivers barreled through the doorway and sprawled headlong, breaking his fall with his hands and narrowly saving his chin from the ravages of the paving stones.

Then he simply lay there, stunned and out of breath. A torrent of laughter spilled from above. When Simon shot a glance upward, a circle of flushed faces in the window scattered out of sight.

He walked to the youth and leaned over him. “I say, Ivers, you seem remarkably intent on killing yourself today.  Any particular reason why?”

“No, sir,” came a slightly muffled reply. Ivers sniffed and slowly levered himself off the ground. Once he had achieved a sitting position Simon offered him a hand up. “Oh, er…thank you, sir.”

The contact of the youth’s slender fingers against his own sent a peculiar sensation through Simon, not entirely unpleasant but nonetheless disconcerting. He pulled his hand away. “Are you injured?”

Ivers brushed dirt and small bits of leaves from his coat. The fine-boned face turned upward, and in the bright daylight Simon saw that his eyes were not as black as he’d previously thought, but the shape and color of almonds. That he should notice the boy’s eyes at all was disquieting, all the more so when he glimpsed the sheen of a tear.

The youth averted his face. “No, sir. I’m not injured.”

Some unnamed instinct sent Simon a foot or two away, a distance that oddly felt more comfortable. “Tell me, are you typically this clumsy?”

“Sir?” Flustered or perhaps insulted, the youth hitched his small nose defiantly into the air.

“It is a necessary question, Ivers. Surely you can grasp the dangers of having an accident-prone assistant in a laboratory filled with electromagnetic equipment.”

“Oh…quite right, sir. And no, sir…not typically. It’s…” He glanced down his length, perplexity blossoming across his milky smooth brow. “It’s the boots, sir. They’re new, not yet broken in.”

Simon’s gaze followed Ivers’s tapering trousers to where the stirrups circled the soles of a pair of black and tan half-Wellingtons with squared-off toes – the very height of fashion. “Only the best, eh, Ned?”

“Sir?”

“Never mind. How soon can you have your things packed?”

“Sir?”

Simon studied those dark eyes and again saw, behind the lad’s confusion, the simmering energy that had caught his attention that morning. Puzzlement gripped him, a sense that the spirit embodied by that spark simply didn’t fit the outer image of the ungainly Mr. Ivers, as if he’d been encased in a foreign, utterly mismatched shell.

“You know, Ivers,” he said, “for someone who is able to pour his heart out through his pen, you have surprisingly scant verbal skills. This could prove problematic.”

Alarm filled the boy’s eyes. “I promise it won’t, sir. I can be as verbose as you please when the occasion warrants it. It’s merely that…”

“The boots?” Simon joked. “Cutting off the oxygen to your brain?”

Ivers’s oddly elegant eyebrows knotted and white lines of tension formed on either side of his nose. Then…his generous lips twitched and broke into a grin. “Indeed, sir, that must be it, surely. I must find a way to loosen them posthaste.”

Simon joined in the youth’s chuckles, until something about their shared mirth felt too familiar, too…intimate. He stepped another stride backward to lengthen the distance between them. What was it about this fellow that left him so flustered, and would it be a hindrance to their working together?

The thought of screening more applicants overcame his doubts. The lad was awkward and shy, but that would change once they established a rapport. Simon would make this work; either that or he must reconcile himself to working alone.

Simon regarded the boy, waiting respectfully if nervously silent. “Mr. Ivers seems too formidable for such a wisp of a youth. What do they call you at home?”

The lad considered a moment before he smiled and lifted his chin. “Actually, sir, my sisters call me Ivy.”

“Ivy?” The sound of it made Simon feel like smiling, too, but he didn’t. No, like the fellow’s laughter, the nickname produced a too cozy, too damnably intimate sensation inside him. “That won’t do either. What did you say your Christian name was?”

“Edwin, sir.”

“A bit formal, that. I shall call you Ned. You may call me Lord Harrow.”

“Yes, sir. Then… I have won the…the challenge, sir?”

Simon blinked and dropped his gaze in concern. “Those boots really are too tight, aren’t they? What the blazes do you think we’re doing here? Of course you won the challenge.”

“Thank you, sir…oh, thank you!”

“Mind you, we shall proceed on a strictly trial basis. Upon the first indication that you might prove unsuited to the position—”

“There shan’t be, Lord Harrow. I promise. I swear, oh—”

“That will be sufficient, Ned.” Simon scanned the rows of Gothic, stone-cased windows of the building before them. “Are you presently living here?”

“I am, sir.”

“How soon can you have your things packed and ready to be moved?”

Ned’s eyes narrowed within their uncommonly thick lashes. “Moved…to where, sir?”

“Harrowood, of course.”

“But…”

“You can’t very well assist me from here, can you?”

“But I thought…” Ned’s hands snapped to his hips. “I assumed the laboratory in question would be located on the university grounds.”

Simon emitted a laugh. “My dear boy, I am not employed by the university. I have one laboratory, and it is located at Harrowood.”

“And it is necessary for me to…move in?”

“Sorry, but yes. My research is of a sensitive nature and I won’t risk word of it leaking out prematurely. Does this pose some sort of predicament for you?”

Ned emitted a high, squeaky little note, but he shook his head. “No predicament, sir.”

“You needn’t worry, lad. This has been cleared with the Dean of Natural Philosophies. You’ll receive full credit for the semester. Extra, no doubt.”

“Then I’ll…er…just go and pack my belongings.”

“Good. I’ll send my carriage round first thing tomorrow to collect you. Oh, and one other thing.” Simon extended his forefinger, circling it in a gesture meant to encompass Ned’s chin and upper lip. “Attempting to grow a bit of whiskers, are we?”

Ned’s expression turned pained. “Yes, sir.”

“You might wish to consider shaving instead.”

The boy nodded glumly. “Thank you, sir.”

******************************************

Have you ever had to fake your way through a situation, say a job interview or some other circumstance where you had to win someone’s trust fast? Were you successful?

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I’m blogging at Coffee Thoughts, the blog page for Coffee Time Romance & More, tomorrow, Thursday, 3/11th. All day! If you haven’t been to Coffee Time, you’re in for a treat! It’s a wonderful site for romance lovers.

Topic: Heroes, specifically alpha males and how they fit into my new series.

You should know the drill by now: stop by, leave a comment and/or answer the question I ask in the blog, and be entered for a copy of MOST EAGERLY YOURS. So grab a cup of coffee, come by and say hi!

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