Series: All's Fair in Love and Racing #1
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For a woman on the run…
Gemma Cassidy is the daughter of an earl—on the wrong side of the blanket. To make her way in the world, and escape her abusive father, Gemma will have to get her hands dirty. Masquerading as a stableboy, she realizes she isn’t only spying on the best horseracing stable in England, but the most magnificent duke in the land.
And a man always in control…
The Duke of Rakesley has everything under control—as usual. He’s a man who knows what he wants and how to get it, like choosing a duchess who will fit into his well-ordered life without fuss. Then Gemma comes along and plays havoc with Rake’s idea of the future—but he can’t help wanting to get closer to all of her beautiful chaos.
When passion flares, all bets are off…
Working closely together reveals a powerful passion that neither of them can deny. Rake knows he wants more than a temporary arrangement, but Gemma refuses to settle for the half-life her mother had as the earl’s mistress. Yet the future isn’t as clear—or as cold—as either had envisioned. Can two independent souls surrender to their hearts’ desire?
Gemma squinted up at the time-beaten sign swinging above the coaching inn’s entrance, shoulder braced against her brother’s heavier weight, and couldn’t help marveling that months of running had led them here—an inn called The Drunken Piebald located in the nether regions of Suffolk.
It wasn’t the name of the inn that put her off, but rather the knowing smirk on the horse’s mouth as he held up a tankard in jolly toast.
Unnerving, that horse’s smile.
“Whoever heard of a drunk horse, anyway?” she said to make light conversation for her brother whose face was stretched into a pained grimace.
Liam gave a dry snort. “Old Featheringham gives his Thoroughbreds biscuits and canary wine on race day.” He winced as she carefully maneuvered him across the inn’s threshold. “Watch how you go, sister,” he groused under his breath, a bead of sweat running down his cheek.
In the cramped receiving area, the fug of the inn’s taproom met them full in the face—spirits gone sour and ale gone stale mixed with the sweat of unwashed bodies, both past and present. It was a smell Gemma and Liam had come to know well over the last year as they’d moved from one inn or stable loft after the other.
They never stayed long in one place. It was how they hadn’t been caught.
But soon that life would be behind them.
Soon, they would be able to plant their feet in one place—which was what had brought them to Suffolk.
Liam frowned and attempted to ease a measure of his weight off Gemma as she swiped the perspiration from her brow. Hobbling around with a brother whose leg was broken above the knee presented more difficulty than she’d expected, truth told.
From his place behind a high oak desk, the cool-eyed innkeeper of The Drunken Piebald sat, unmoved and unmoving, and observed the two strange auburn-haired brothers as they approached step by shuffling step.
How much more askance would he be viewing them if he only knew the scrawny brother with two good legs was, in fact, a sister.
Well, he wouldn’t know.
Gemma had long since discovered that was what trousers, chest binding, and a slouch hat were for.
Still, if she’d been dressed as a woman, he would’ve been left with no choice but to assist them. But two lads staying in the cheapest room on the ground floor? They were left to get on beneath their own steam.
She dug into the pocket of her dull brown coat and pulled out a pouch, which gave a muted clank when it hit the oak surface.
“Half, as agreed,” said Liam through gritted teeth, as if the words cost him more than what was in that pouch.
He always spoke for them, making it easier for Gemma to pass without much notice in public places. Tonight, a light sheen of sweat coated skin that had paled with the journey up from London. He needed to lie down.
“And the other half at the end of the month,” he finished.
The innkeeper’s mouth widened incrementally—what passed for a smile on those thin, stingy lips, Gemma supposed—as he tested the weight of the purse before peering into its contents. Satisfied, he nodded and tucked it away.
The tension in Gemma’s shoulders released an increment. One obstacle overcome. The Drunken Piebald was the nearest inn to where they needed to be—and the cheapest.
The innkeeper swept around the front desk. “If you’ll follow me,” sounded in his wake, the syllables as clipped and efficient as his feet.
Gemma and Liam met one another’s gazes with lifted eyebrows. They didn’t need much more than that to communicate. It had ever been so since they’d emerged from their Mam’s womb seven minutes apart—Gemma being the elder, as she liked to remind her brother when he needed it.
“You’d think he was paying us,” muttered Liam as Gemma dug a shoulder beneath his armpit.
“Ready?” she asked, the weight of his long, lanky person settling onto her slighter form, though she was lanky too. Lanky enough she could pass for a lad of seventeen years.
“Toward the promise of a bed?” he asked, hobbling forward. “Aye.”
One six-inch step at a time, they negotiated their way through the cramped foyer. “It’ll be hard and lumpy, you know,” she said, again trying for lightness.
He snorted. “Not anything I’m not already used to.”
Now, it was Gemma who snorted.
Liam wasn’t complaining—and neither was she. They might be sleeping on hard, lumpy beds, but they were living a life of their own forging.
What were a few hard, lumpy beds compared to that?
Through the near-empty taproom they shambled, one unbalanced step after another toward a—blessedly—short corridor, at the end of which stood the innkeeper with an exasperated frown, room key grudgingly extended. He seemed to be having second thoughts about accommodating this motley duo of lads. Gemma snatched the key away before he could change his mind.
“If that will be all,” said the innkeeper as he pushed around them, the words trailing in his wake.
Left alone, Liam lifted a single, silent eyebrow, and Gemma inhaled a chirrup of laughter as, together, they took in the room. A single, narrow bed filled one corner, the stand for a jug and washbasin the other. A table and chair were positioned beneath what looked to be a sizeable window. Thank goodness for small miracles as that pane of glass would provide Liam’s only view beyond these four walls for the next month.
“Ah, blessed bed,” he said, crossing the distance on a few short hops before lowering himself and swinging first his good leg onto the hard, lumpy surface, and then the broken leg more gingerly.
The surgeon had told him he’d been lucky the fall from the Thoroughbred hadn’t broken the bone clean through. From what the man had been able to tell by pressing and digging into the wound with his fingers, the bone was fractured, which still needed ample time to heal, but Liam wouldn’t be permanently lamed—as long as he stayed off it and didn’t injure it further. A directive that Gemma had been struggling to enforce.
While Liam settled upright onto the bed, Gemma got to the business of transforming the room into her brother’s home for the foreseeable future. She dragged the jug and washbasin stand to position it within easy reach. Same went for the chamber pot beneath the bed. All he’d have to do was lean over to reach it.
Liam was tall for a jockey. Everyone commented on it, but still he’d been making a name for himself as a rider with his sensitive hands and light touch with the bit. Until he’d been thrown from one particularly surly beast and landed at an angle just wrong enough to break his leg.
Wrong enough to nearly break every single one of their dreams.
Except Gemma wasn’t about to let that happen.
So, they’d journeyed to the wilds of Suffolk anyway—to be near the Duke of Rakesley’s famed racing estate, Somerton, as they were being paid to do. Even though Liam couldn’t exactly try for a jockey position in Rakesley’s stables with a broken leg.
It was a problem.
But not an insurmountable one.
Gemma was determined.
She dragged the room’s only chair next to the bed and took a seat. “All set?” she asked.
“As much as I can be,” her brother groused, shifting his bottom an inch this way, then that, until he eventually settled. His gaze landed on Gemma, and a stubborn light entered his eyes—one she’d come to know well this past week. She readied herself for a battle.
“Now, Gemma,” he began.
She held up a hand to stay the words in his mouth. “Don’t.”
But of course, he continued. “I don’t see the purpose of us being here.”
This…again. “We were hired for a job—”
“I was hired for a job,” he corrected.
“—and,” she continued as if he hadn’t spoken, “we’re here to see it through.”
“Deverill hired me, Gemma.”
She shrugged. A minor detail, that. “Deverill wants information about Rakesley’s stables.” She spread her hands wide. “I shall provide it.” She shifted forward, rigid with determination. “This is our chance, Liam. We can’t walk away from the money Deverill is offering.”
It was a lump sum of money that only came along once in a lifetime—if one was lucky.
Life-changing money…and they both knew it.
But only if one had the guts and gumption to seize it.
“There’s too much at stake to walk away,” she said.
Liam wanted to believe her. She saw it in his eyes.
But he didn’t.
She saw that too.
He shook his head, slowly, as if to let her down easy. “Somerton’s head groom, Wilson, won’t hire you on. He’s a known hard arse.”
“And why not?” she hissed when she wanted to raise her voice. “No one knows their way around horses better than me. Not even you.”
That last bit had been to needle him.
Liam remained unamused and unmoved. “Because you’re a woman, Gemma.”
She pinched at her trousers and tugged her ever-present slouch hat. “No one knows that when I’m wearing these.”
He heaved an exasperated sigh. “You wouldn’t fool them for long, and girls don’t get jobs in stables. You know that.”
Gemma did—and it frustrated her no end. But she had considered the possibility that Liam might be right, and another idea for inveigling herself into Rakesley’s household had—reluctantly—occurred to her.
An idea she didn’t like—not one bit.
“I know how I can get a position.”
With limbs suddenly made of lead, she retrieved her valise and removed a garment she hadn’t worn in a solid year.
“You know you are about the most stubborn—”
Gemma held up the garment and let it unfold.
And it stopped the remainder of Liam’s sentence dead in his mouth.
“I could get work as a scullery,” she said.
The wind left Liam’s sails, and his brow crinkled with concern. “We made a pact, Gemma.”
“I know, but—”
“Our pact was that neither of us would ever work in service, and particularly not as a scullery.” The sudden intensity of his gaze held her in place. “You won’t be safe.”
“I know how to stay safe.”
Liam shook his head, unconvinced. “But lords, Gemma. They don’t know what the word no means.”
Gemma didn’t like it, either. Women in service were vulnerable to a lord’s whims and desires. They both understood it too well.
“I’ll be alright, Liam.”
“Damn this broken leg,” he exclaimed in a sudden burst of frustration.
Gemma placed a calming hand on top of his and held his eyes of the same hazel hue as hers. “Just one month, then you’ll be healed, and we’ll have Deverill’s blunt to go to New York with our Cassidy cousins, like we’ve been planning.” She sensed her brother’s resistance slipping—or perhaps he was simply exhausted from the journey. “Only a few weeks,” she whispered, sensing an opening.
He slid down the bed to lie flat on his back. “We can talk more about it on the morrow,” he said on a yawn, his eyes drifting closed.
Gemma stood and made for the door. “I’ll just go and inquire about a mat and blanket for myself.”
“Mmm,” was all she heard at her back as the door clicked shut behind her.
Instead of returning to the front desk, however, she scanned the taproom—which had acquired a few more patrons—and located the side door that led to the stables. She tugged her slouch hat down her forehead, hunched her shoulders, and made straight for it, careful not to draw attention to herself. She’d gotten good at that this last year.
Outside, a breeze whipped sharply about her. She inhaled deep and long. Life in London didn’t afford one air like this. It almost made her miss the country estate where she’d spent her childhood.
There wasn’t any true reason for her to venture into the stables. She and Liam didn’t have a horse of their own to board. But if there was a stable—any stable—nearby, she liked to pop her head in and see how the horses were being tended. Though in a coaching inn like The Drunken Piebald, it was likely to be full of coach horses, resting up for the next leg of their stage journey. Perhaps a hack or two for the lords who would be traveling through to Newmarket.
Her and Liam’s reason for being here.
For the last year, they’d been bouncing between various stables in and around London. Liam had been steadily climbing his way up the ladder—starting as a stable lad, then as a groom, and more recently as a jockey. As Liam’s silent, younger “brother,” Gemma had been able to accompany him everywhere—stables, racecourses, and even Tattersall’s once.
And it was all because she wore trousers, bound her breasts, tucked her hair away, and kept her mouth shut.
But the thing she’d noticed—as a woman—about being a lad…
It felt safer out in the world as a lad.
Besides, she loved to ride and never did have any use for all that sidesaddle nonsense.
She wasn’t a lady.
Even if their father was an earl—an accident of birth, that—their mother had been a cook from Ireland.
In other words, no one gave a fig if Miss Gemma Cassidy wore trousers and called herself a lad.
“A strange pair,” she’d heard whispered about the two of them.
But neither of them cared. She and Liam had always stuck together—and they always would.
In the stable warm with heat from the horses, it was as she’d suspected. In the first few stalls, overworked coach horses were in various stages of being brushed, fed, and watered after their stage journey. A Cleveland bay extended his head over the gate of the fourth stall she came to. She reached inside her pocket for a chunk of carrot. She always carried a bit of carrot, turnip, or apple. The bay gently took it off her palm, and she stroked his black mane and cooed a bit of nonsense into his ear. To a one, these horses were used poorly, and their working lives totaled to no more than three years. Most were sold on for farm work after that. She could hardly stand to see it.
A sudden, loud racket came from the very last stall. Gemma glanced around at the stable lads. They appeared to be daring each other to see about the animal—and neither seemed keen on taking the bet.
While she was pretending to be a quiet lad, she couldn’t give them the dressing down they very much deserved. Instead, she made her own way down the center aisle to investigate, her curiosity up. With each step she took, the racketing continued. The horse sounded quite intent on kicking his stall door down. When she reached the last stall and peered inside, the breath caught in her chest.
Before her stood a dapple-gray gentleman’s hack, not an inch below fifteen hands. From his size and evident musculature, she put the stallion down as five or so years. “Aren’t you a proud, handsome fellow? I’m sure all the fillies in Hyde Park whinny when you trot past.”
He stepped forward enough so his head arched over the stall door. He nudged her shoulder with his muzzle. This proud, handsome fellow wanted a treat. “Was that what your tantrum was all about?”
She dug into her pocket for a chunk of carrot. While he took it, she stroked the white star on his forehead. Her hand moved along to his black mane, a striking contrast to his light gray coat. She’d never met a horse she couldn’t woo, and her streak wasn’t about to end today with a high-spirited stallion with no small amount of Thoroughbred blood in him.
The Drunken Piebald’s lazy stable lads, notwithstanding, this was a much-cared-for animal, even if he wasn’t as sweet tempered as he could be.
She shook her head.
She dug out another treat for him—a turnip. When he took it softly from her palm, she experienced the familiar thrill of triumph—but not of conquest. Horses weren’t meant to be conquered, but made into family. Why was it so many people couldn’t understand that?
“He doesn’t allow just anyone to do that,” came a man’s voice behind her.
Gemma didn’t startle. One didn’t show high emotion around a horse. They required a calm, settled atmosphere.
Before she turned, she already knew a few facts about the voice’s owner. With the deep, cultured tone and particular intonation of his syllables, he was a gentleman. A lord, even.
And he was the owner of this horse.
Slowly, she pivoted, careful to keep her face pointed toward the ground. Lords expected as much. Black boots buffed to a mirror shine, that was the first thing she noticed about this lord. Unable not to, her gaze continued upward, over tan buckskin riding breeches—and noted the muscular thighs beneath. Up farther, her gaze couldn’t help traveling across his tall, rangy form—hunter-green jacket fitted perfectly across broad shoulders…white silk cravat knotted neatly at his throat…square jaw and dimpled chin…angular cheekbones that caught the flickering light of the lantern…thick black hair that just curled at the ends from beneath his black hat.
But it was the endless black pools of his eyes that drew her in and held her in thrall. Those eyes could see into a soul—if one wasn’t careful to guard it.
She needed to lower her gaze. It was an impertinence for a lowly lad such as herself to be meeting the eyes of a nobleman in the first place.
A single black eyebrow lifted in silent question, and the spell broke. Her gaze fell to her feet—where it belonged.
Why was her heart racing in her chest so?
It wasn’t as if she’d never met a nob.
But…she’d never met a nob as devastatingly magnificent as the one presently lifting the gate latch and readying his horse to ride.
Checking the saddle straps, he said over his shoulder, “I thought all the lads at this coaching inn stayed clear of Moonraker.”
“Moonraker,” she found herself repeating when all that was expected of her was a noncommittal grunt. Really, though, what a wonderful name for this horse with his light grey coat.
The lord cast a speculative glance in her direction. “You like the name?”
She nodded, gaze on her feet, and muttered, “I do.”
Then it struck her: Contrary to what Liam thought, she could pass herself off as male without him. For this lord clearly thought her a lad. Fragile possibility lifted its head…
“Rakesley,” came another cultured voice.
Gemma’s head whipped around to find another tall, impeccably dressed lord entering the stable. But where the one before her was dark and rangy, this one was blond and massive. Rather like a Viking, she couldn’t help thinking. But a Viking with kind, laughing eyes, she could see from here.
Yet that wasn’t what had her heart galloping in her chest.
The Viking lord had called this lord…Rakesley.
Sudden, irrefutable fact walloped Gemma over the head—she’d been conversing with the Duke of Rakesley.
Careful to remain unobserved, she stepped away until her back met the stall gate on the opposite side of the aisle while the lords readied their mounts to leave. From beneath the brim of her slouch hat, she took Rakesley’s measure.
Here was the man with the most renowned racing estate in all of England.
Here was the man she was being paid life-changing money to spy upon.
She’d formed an idea of Rakesley based on the Thoroughbred-owning, turf-obsessed lords she’d come across in London stables and at Tattersall’s over this last year. Men not nearly as stunning as the beasts they owned, to put it nicely.
But this Rakesley…
He was stunning—full stop.
Here was no bumbling, inept lord, but very much a capable duke.
She couldn’t help wondering if Deverill understood that.
She couldn’t help thinking he didn’t.
Rakesley and the Viking lord—Rakesley called him Julian—led their stallions from their stalls, and Gemma snapped to. Here was opportunity slipping away from her…walking his mount down the center aisle and into the stable yard.
No, no, no.
“Your Grace?” she called out, desperation seizing her as her feet kicked into a run to catch him.
Without answering, Rakesley mounted Moonraker before turning so man and mount stared down at her, twin arrogant expressions on their faces—if a horse could be arrogant.
The man certainly was.
“What is it?” he demanded, his dark, bottomless eyes narrowed on her. Rakesley didn’t like to be kept waiting.
A useful fact to know about a man—particularly if one was being paid to spy on him.
Gemma’s mind went suddenly blank. “Would…would…” she stammered, searching for the words that had been suspended on the tip of her tongue mere seconds ago. “Would your stables be needing a lad?”
Her question was met with not an iota of surprise. “What about your employ here?” he asked, utterly indifferent.
Gemma shrugged. “It’s nothing.”
Which was the truth. She wasn’t employed by The Drunken Piebald.
In fact, she was employed by Rakesley’s rival.
All of which, she’d be keeping to herself.
Tetchy nerves jangled through her. He was bound to see with those eyes of infinite darkness that she was no lad at all. “I don’t allow just anyone into my stables,” he said. “Do you have experience beyond broken-down coach horses at a third-rate coaching inn?”
It wasn’t his rudeness that gave Gemma pause. It was the way he was utterly unyielding—and arrogant and condescending.
The point was this—one wouldn’t want this man for an enemy.
And if she somehow gained a position in his stables, that was precisely what she would be making of him.
The lord called Julian broke in. “What’s the harm, Rake? The lad clearly knows about horses and has a way with them.”
Hope sparked through Gemma. She’d been correct in thinking the Viking lord had kind eyes.
Rakesley’s gaze coolly assessed Gemma, as if he were evaluating a questionable piece of horseflesh. She wouldn’t be at all surprised if he asked to check her teeth.
Now, there she’d be in trouble, for she wasn’t a lad of seventeen years but a woman of twenty.
Just when she’d convinced herself that he wouldn’t relent, he said, “Be at Somerton’s stables at seven o’clock tomorrow morning—sharp. I do not tolerate laggards. Ask for Wilson.”
All the nerves held in check within Gemma released in a rush, “I’ll be there at six.”
The Viking lord laughed, and Rakesley said, unsmiling, “Let’s not get carried away. Seven will do.”
The lords rode out of the stable yard, leaving Gemma alone, the clip-clop of horse hooves fading into the night. Tempering the feeling of triumph currently streaking through her came a chill. The instant she stepped foot inside Rakesley’s stables, she would make an enemy of that magnificent, capable duke.
But what choice had she?
Her future, and Liam’s as well, was at stake.
And there was nothing she wouldn’t do to secure it.
Liam would resist, of course.
But she would prevail.
Mainly because Liam was confined to a bed.
Well, one had to take one’s luck where one found it.
She had this under control.
Except…no one controlled the Duke of Rakesley.
No matter. She wasn’t planning to control him. She would only gather information about the operation of his renowned stables and send it along to Deverill in agreed-upon regular missives by post.
When viewed from that angle, it was practically a crime without a victim. No one would be getting hurt. It was simply the passing on of information. If she didn’t do it, someone else would.
And someone else would get that life-changing fifty pounds.
She made her way across the stable yard, and the wind caught at her slouch hat, a tendril of hair slipping from beneath. By the time she entered the inn, the errant lock was securely tucked away before she stopped to secure an extra blanket and pillow. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d slept on a floor.
Nor the last, she suspected.
Inside their room, she nudged Liam awake and recounted the happenings of the last half hour, leaving out not a single, solitary detail.
He let her finish, then said, “It won’t work.”
She puffed out an irritated breath. “Why is that?”
Liam didn’t rise to it. “Just look at you, Gemma.”
“I know what I look like.”
His eyes rolled toward the ceiling. “You’re a woman,” he explained slowly. “Truly, the man must be blind.” Another thought seemed to strike him. “Or a complete dolt, like most lords.”
It was only established fact. Most lords were self-centered dolts.
She wasn’t sure what he was—man or mythology—but one thing she was sure he wasn’t.
This duke wasn’t a dolt.
She shook her head. “He’s neither blind nor a dolt.”
Liam sucked his teeth. He didn’t like that answer.
“You know, I’m very much the size of a lad,” she continued. “The binding on my, erm, chest keeps it flat enough, and I’ve learned how to hide my privy habits around the stables in London.”
Liam pointed an accusatory finger square at her face. “Not a hint of fuzz on your upper lip.”
“Some lads don’t have any until later.” She could only hope she didn’t sound as desperate as she felt. “I’ll smudge dirt into my skin. No one will notice me.”
“Your hair,” stated Liam, as if those two words were enough said.
“What about my hair?”
“Tucking it away works when I’m around to vouch for you. But I won’t be there, Gemma.”
The worry was apparent in his eyes. They’d always protected one another, and with her up the road at Somerton and him here with a broken leg, he wouldn’t be able to.
“Your disguise might suffice for ten minutes, in the dark, but not every hour of the day. Your hair is silky. Like a woman’s.”
“I suppose I am a woman,” she admitted, grudgingly. “Beneath it all.”
“And won’t the Duke of Rakesley know it?”
Gemma removed her hat and took a long look at herself in the mirror. A riot of thick red-gold curls. That was her untamed hair—a force to be reckoned with. And in combination with the delicate features of her face…
Liam was, of course, correct.
Rakesley, with his fathomless black eyes that pierced and assessed, would see through her sooner rather than later.
An idea stole in. A bold idea…
Who was to say she had to keep all this hair, anyway?
She wasn’t some ingenue about to make her debut with the intent of securing a lord for a husband.
She was a bastard on the run, trying to secure a future free of fear for herself and her brother.
Was there anything that woman wouldn’t do?
She turned on her heel and made straight for the door.
“Where are you going now?” Liam called out to her back.
“To procure a pair of scissors.”
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