Posts Tagged ‘Recklessly Yours’

The winners of the three signed copies of RECKESSLY YOURS are:

Joan O., Kimmie L., and Betty L. Congratulations, ladies, and I’ll send you each an email so we can arrange delivery of your books.

The winner of the $15 e-gift certificate goes to Julie (SailorRose)! Again, congratulations and I’ll be emailing to make arrangements.

Many thanks to everyone who read the excerpts and left such encouraging comments all week long. Your interest and your support is much appreciated!

However you celebrate, may the holidays see you healthy and happy, and be filled with friends and family, delightful surprises, and wonderful reading!  

 

RECKLESSLY YOURS – Her Majesty’s Secret Servants book 3, on sale tomorrow, Dec. 6th, online and bookstores everywhere!

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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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It’s the weekend and we’re busy decking the halls here for Christmas. So no facts today…just danger and urgency and the spark of passion…in my favorite room of any great house – the library. I hope you enjoy this one!

Excerpt:

“Whatever you want, I have no interest. I demand you let me go this instant.”

His only response was his obscene laughter.

“Sir, you are in your cups.” She tugged for all she was worth. “Come morning you will regret your actions.”

“Shall I, mon amie?”

“Indeed, yes!” She lashed out with her hand, her palm striking the side of his head and not the cheek she had aimed for. But she was not Laurel Sutherland’s sister for nothing, nor Aidan Phillips’s sister-in-law, for that matter. They had taught her how to fight, to defend herself. If this man refused to behave like a gentleman, then it was time for her to stop behaving like a lady. She lifted her foot. . . .

Her knee hit squarely in the man’s groin. He let out a yelp, his arms loosening and opening a fraction of space between them. As he bent over, she seized the opportunity and swung her fists, jabbing at his throat, and something fleshier—his cheek this time? When he howled and lurched backward, she ran, blindly, having no notion in which direction she went. She only hoped she would end up at the library where she could escape to the terrace and the safety of the ballroom.

“Miss Sutherland, is that you?”

She collided with a torso—solid like the stranger’s yet familiar, protective. Arms closed around her, wrapping her in safety. “Lord Drayton? Please let it be you this time.”

The bravado that had saved her from that drunkard’s lascivious intentions now abandoned her in a torrent. Sobs choked her voice, strangling the syllables of his name. Until this moment, she had not realized how frightened she was. Who had accosted her? Could it have been Mr. Fenhurst, who had always been kind to her and her sisters? Or Lord Arnold, whose youthful wife proved he had a penchant for younger women? The man in the corridor had seemed larger and stronger than either of those two, but could her fear have magnified his size and strength?

She buried her face against Lord Drayton’s shoulder.

“What is it? What happened?” The questions came sharply, penetrating her fear, demanding an answer. “And what did you mean, by ‘this time’?”

She pressed her cheek to his coat front. “There was a man. At first I thought he was you following me . . . but . . .” She raised her face, taking in the firm lines of his chin, his jaw, the stony contour of his cheek. “It wasn’t you.”

“I did follow you, Miss Sutherland, but when I heard you stop in the corridor, I assumed—” He broke off. His hand cradled the back of her head, his fingers gently stroking her hair. The library door stood open beside them. Lord Drayton held her tightly, his lips tickling her ear as he made soothing sounds to calm her. She relished the reassurance of masculine superfine, and the muscle beneath, against her cheek.

“It was my own fault,” she said. “He must have seen me leave the ballroom and followed me. He must have assumed I went looking for . . . for . . .”

He framed her face in his hands and raised it from his chest until their gazes met. His voice, when he spoke, was as steely as a knife-edge. “What did he do?”

“He . . .” Now that she was safe, it all seemed a blur. He had seemed to materialize out of nowhere, from the shadows themselves.

An ill sensation rose, wrapped in layers of shame that forced her head down. There were reasons decent young women didn’t wander alone through dark corridors. She drew a steadying breath. “He seized me and refused to let go.”

The earl’s hands tightened until she could feel the calluses, acquired from years of riding, against her cheeks. “Did he take privileges with you?” When she didn’t answer, he spoke more loudly, more fiercely. “Did he hurt you?”

“He didn’t hurt me exactly. In fact, I may have injured him. I struck him and kicked him as hard as I could. Then I ran.”

She couldn’t be quite certain, but she thought the corners of his mouth lifted in what might have been a smile.

“Come.” His strong arm looped about her waist. As he walked her into the library, she didn’t know if it was lingering fear and shock that made her knees wobble, or the intimacy of his hold. But if not for his steadying arm and the solidness of his side against her, she would have toppled. He brought her to the settee before the fireplace and gently handed her down onto the cushions.

He crouched at her feet. His hand closed around hers, disconcerting and heavenly. “Did you recognize anything about him?”

She tried to focus on his question, rather than on those calluses across the base of his fingers, or on how she might lean over and press her lips to the silky hair at the crown of his head. “It was too dark. I could make out only that he was older than . . . than you. Not quite elderly, I shouldn’t think. Middle-aged.”

“Did he say anything?”

“Very little. He said . . . that he wasn’t you.”

The earl responded with a curious lift of his eyebrow, making her regret the disclosure. Don’t ask. Please, don’t ask.

He drew back a little. “Of all things, why would he declare that?”

“Because . . .” She sipped her sherry, wishing she could crawl into the glass and drown.

He grasped her wrist, and gently lowered her arm. “Why, Holly?”

The echo of her Christian name reverberated through her, then settled with a heated thrum deep in her belly. She had often heard him speak her sisters’ names, Ivy and Willow, even Laurel. But never Holly. Never once had he looked at her and allowed his lips to form her name.

How sweetly it rolled off his tongue, making her pulse leap, her heart swell. His presence suddenly filled the room, her world, and each breath she drew came laden with his musky scent, fueling a sudden longing to toss her sherry aside and throw her arms around his neck.

“Holly?”

She shut her eyes, blocking out the tempting sight of him. “I told you, I thought he was you. I thought you had been following me, and when he caught me, I . . . cried out your name.” Good heavens, she kept digging herself in deeper. What questions would he ask now? What answers would he demand?

“I was following you,” he said quietly but harshly. His subdued fierceness quickened her pulse. He rose higher on his knees, his hands sliding along her thighs to settle at her waist. His palms cupped her hip bones, raising an ache between them that nearly made her cry out his name all over again. She shut her eyes.

He swore under his breath. “I heard you running down the hall, and I followed until I realized you weren’t alone.”

Her eyes snapped open. “You heard him?”

“Yes, dammit. I could have spared you the entire unsavory experience had I not deemed my interference less than welcome.”

“You thought I’d gone to tryst?” Her stomach tightened into a ball of dismay.

It was his turn to lower his face in silent rumination. Holly slipped a hand beneath his chin, his evening bristle rough against her fingertips, disquieting and oddly reassuring at the same time.

Reassuring? By his own implied admission, he had believed the worst of her. The fact of it stung, but she couldn’t help repeating her question, though this time it came out as a statement. “You thought I’d sought an assignation.”

His nostrils flared. His eyes flashed defiance, but beneath it, uncertainty. Apology. “Yes. I am sorry. But yes.”

“You think that because I enjoy riding fast, I am fast.”

He seized her wrist. “Dammit, no.”

#

“I came back,” he said, the words both an avowal and a plea. Her wrist was small and warm, so delicate in his hand. He gazed down at it, then upward to the satiny whiteness of her arm, the skin so much paler, purer, than his own. “If I had believed you to be fast, I would not have come back to stop you. I would not have wished to save you from a grievous error.”

The error of giving herself to an undeserving boor like Bentley, or for that matter any other man on the face of the earth.

Any man that wasn’t him.

Never mind that he was the one man who couldn’t have her, not now, not at any time in his foreseeable future.

“You came back for me. . . .” Her voice melted to a soft little whimper that undid his remaining composure . . . and his resolve.

“Yes. God yes, Holly.”

He released her wrist and rose onto the settee beside her. Then she was in his arms, sinking into him, her fragrant warmth spreading across his shirt front. Months and months of standing firm fell away like a house of cards in a sudden draft, leaving him exposed, vulnerable, wanting.

He tried telling himself he’d allow nothing more than a brief touch of their lips, a small taste of what he could not have. But her lips were full and moist and at the slight prod of his tongue, they parted for him, invited him in, and sent him spiraling headlong into pleasure. She tasted of sherry and sweetness with a dash of spice, and every irresistible thing he could think of.

Until he could no longer think at all…

His hands began moving, exploring… His fingertips trembled over long, elegant lines and tight, exquisite curves. He had been correct about the riding. Where other women were soft and malleable, she was firm and sculpted, an artist’s masterpiece, but warm, alive, unknowingly seductive.

His lips followed his fingertips down the curve of her chin, the underside of her jaw, and down…but he tamped down every urge to proceed any further. If it killed him—which he feared it might—he would take no more from her than could be winked at in the morning.

For he knew—beyond a doubt—that Holly Sutherland would wink at none of this. She was no experienced paramour, and this was no conquest for her, no game of seduce the earl with which she would regale her friends afterward.

He would have bet a piece of his soul that each kiss, each touch, held meaning for her, or she would not be here, would not be kissing him back. All the more reason to let her go before another of their heartstrings tangled. He would not be like his father, a man who dallied with innocence, taking what didn’t belong to him without a qualm.

But he didn’t let her go. He held on and inhaled the fragrance of her skin and hair so deep as to never, ever forget it. He kissed every part of her that he dared—her throat, her shoulders, her lips—so he would always remember the feel of her, the taste of her on his tongue.

Then a thought, a prayer, sprang to his mind: perhaps someday . . .

Don’t forget to leave a comment to be entered in my drawing. There are three copies of Recklessly Yours and one bookstore e-gift certificate to be won. Winners will be chosen on Monday!

One more excerpt tomorrow…

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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: 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…

~

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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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