Book Series: All's Fair in Love and Racing

Odds on the Rake

Posted April 11, 2023 by Danielle in / 0 Comments

Title: Odds on the Rake
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?

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Chapter 1

Suffolk, England

March 1822

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.

A dress.

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.

Newmarket…horse racing…

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.

An enemy.

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.

But Rakesley…

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.”

Also in this series:

The Duchess Gamble

Posted July 9, 2023 by Danielle in / 0 Comments

Title: The Duchess Gamble
Series: All's Fair in Love and Racing #2
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She’s betting it all on the future…

Celia Calthorp, Duchess of Acaster, is sick of always being on the edge of disaster. Now that widowhood has finally given her the freedom to make her own choices, she knows exactly what she needs to do—marry a rich man to secure her future and that of her beloved stables. And it’s all going to plan…until it isn’t.

He never takes a risk he can’t win…

Gabriel Siren, proprietor of London’s most exclusive gaming hell, knows exactly where he stands—always on the fringes of the aristocracy. That changes when he becomes the Seventh Duke of Acaster and inherits a beautiful dowager duchess, too. But Celia might be exactly what he needs…

All bets are off when the gamble is love…

Working together to secure his sisters’ place in society, neither is prepared for the pull of attraction they feel—or being swept away when passion flares. As sweet as falling in love for the first time is, Celia knows that it can’t last. But Gabriel isn’t ready to let her go. Can he convince Celia to risk it all…for him?

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Chapter 1

Newmarket Racecourse
May 1822

The most beautiful woman in the room had nowhere to hide—except behind her smile.

Life had taught Celia that much—how to nod and smile and pretend.

A woman didn’t reach her thirtieth year without having learned to do all three at once—convincingly.
What a useful hiding place was a smile. No one could see the nerves shimmering behind a pleasant curve of the mouth or an inviting crinkle of the eyes. The mechanics were simple.

And her smile was that good.

Take the lord presently pontificating at her. Oh, what was his name? Perhaps it began with D?

Anyway, even with all Lord D’s banging on about a coffee farm on the other side of the world, today

Celia’s smile was genuine for two very good reasons.

First, her filly Light Skirt was the favorite to win the One Thousand Guineas, the second race of the popular Newmarket weekend that attracted the cream of society, dressed in their most fashionable silk and superfine, dripping in their most sparkling jewels and smiles.

And Light Skirt would win.

Celia knew it in her bones.

The second reason for Celia’s smile was the proposal of marriage from the eminently eligible and eminently wealthy Duke of Rakesley that she would be receiving any day now.

And her stables would be saved.

It had been years—more than a decade—since she’d had so much to smile about.

Her gaze shifted discreetly away from Lord D, beyond the second floor of the grandstand where all the haut ton were congregated, and toward the racecourse. Truly, the day was a beautiful one for a race. The sky was clear, and the air possessed of the right amount of nip for horses and spectators alike. And the turf, green with spring and ready for the action it would see within the hour, was perfection. The rains had stopped a week ago, so the Ditch Mile held a firm spring.

Celia’s heart tapped out a few extra beats as it always did at the races—especially when she had a horse in the running.

Nothing could touch her smile today.

Lord D stumbled over his words, and she couldn’t help wondering if her eyes appeared as glazed over as they felt. Possibly, she was being rude. Probably. But it was a very mild rudeness, and she was a duchess.

A dowager duchess, a small voice reminded her.

As if it needed to.

Besides, the man’s conversation bordered on the soporific. In recent years, it had occurred to her that society was structured to protect the delicate feelings of men. After the death of her husband a year ago, however, a mildly rebellious thought had lifted its head—what about her feelings?

Then the thought gained momentum and carried a step further—who in all her life had ever given her feelings a lick of consideration?

No one—not even herself.

“But, oh, poor Lady Artemis,” came a feminine voice behind Celia.

Her ears perked up, even as her gaze remained fixed sightlessly on Lord D, his fleshy mouth still going on and on and on about coffee, and she listened to the gossip.

“Did you ever hear such a wail?” asked a second lady, distaste evident. “Over a horse?”

The first lady’s voice lowered to a whisper. “So common.”

And there it was—Lady Artemis’s sin: to show feeling—over a horse.

No matter that Lady Artemis was the daughter of one Duke of Rakesley and the sister of another Duke of Rakesley—Celia’s soon-to-be fiancé. It was a small world occupied by the ton.

Celia’s hands wanted to clench into fists, but she didn’t allow them the luxury. Her smile slipped not a notch. In fact, it might’ve broadened and sent entirely the wrong message to Lord D, who stepped closer, emboldened by her appearance of renewed interest.

Celia took an instinctive two steps back.

Smiles had their limits.

All the talk today—except Lord D’s, of course—was about Lady Artemis and the death of her filly Dido during yesterday’s race, the Two Thousand Guineas. Just as the filly had been on the verge of winning, she stumbled and fell in the final furlong. But it had been no mere stumble. It had been a total collapse from which the filly never recovered. As Dido drew her final breath on the turf, Lady Artemis had been inconsolable.

Emotion still clogged Celia’s throat at the memory.

Not that her smile showed it.

Lady Artemis, on the other hand, had never learned Celia’s smile. She’d never needed to. Though almost thirty herself and unmarried, the lady had never in her life once smiled for anyone she hadn’t wanted to.

Celia couldn’t imagine such freedom.

She gave herself a mental shake and reminded herself of the two reasons for her optimistic mood. Light Skirt about to win the One Thousand Guineas and Rakesley would be proposing any day now.

“Ah, there you are, Celia,” came a most welcome lady’s voice. A hand slipped into the crook of her arm, accompanied by the familiar scent of lily of the valley, and Celia felt tense muscles relax with relief.

Mrs. Eloise Fairfax—simply Eloise to Celia—had come to her rescue. Eloise was both Celia’s cousin and bosom friend, as their ages were only five years apart.

“My apologies, Lord Derwin,” said Eloise smoothly, “but I must steal my cousin away, and I make no promise to return her.”

The last was spoken with a charming wink meant to assuage Derwin’s feelings. Petite with luminous dark eyes that exuded warmth, Eloise had the gift of making men feel large and generous and like everything was their idea.

Celia could learn something from her cousin—if only she just would.

Out of earshot from Derwin, Celia couldn’t help venting her irritation. “I thought widowhood afforded a lady the luxury of avoiding droning men.”

“I’ve found widowhood affords no lady any such luxury,” said Eloise, her voice even as ever. “But, oh, how on earth did you find yourself stuck in conversation with that lout?”

“Attracting louts is my special gift,” returned Celia. “Haven’t you heard?”

Going by Celia’s disastrous marriage, everyone had.

Eloise squeezed Celia’s arm with affection.

Celia loved Eloise. It had always been so, with Eloise assuming the role of older sister who knew best. Never once had Celia felt stifled by her cousin, but rather loved. And some years—an entire decade of them, in fact—love had been in short supply.

Together, Celia and Eloise moved through the intensifying crowd. With her natural friendliness and curiosity, Eloise greeted friends and acquaintances—she ever collected more and more of them—while Celia nodded distantly. She was known to be a cool duchess, one who held herself at a remove. She’d never minded all that much.

“Is Rakesley about?” Leave it to Eloise to cut directly to the subject occupying half the space in Celia’s mind.

“He followed Lady Artemis to London yesterday.”

Eloise nodded approvingly. “Like a good brother should.”


Of course, Rakesley wouldn’t have been able to allow his sister to grieve alone. So, he’d cut short his own celebration for his colt Hannibal having won the Two Thousand Guineas. Like the caring, responsible brother he was.

Celia liked him the better for it.

“Still,” began Eloise.

Though a single word spoken, Celia detected the note of worry within. She knew what Eloise was about to say—and she wished her cousin wouldn’t.

“It would be a relief,” continued Eloise, “if he would ask the question and have it done.”

An objective truth.

All they had to do was be in the same room together, and nature would take its course. Rakesley would ask, and Celia would say yes. Wasn’t it only natural for a duke to marry a duchess? The laws of the universe all but decreed it so.

“Oh, these delays,” fretted her cousin. Eloise was a worrier.

Celia allowed that worry no entry. After Light Skirt won today’s race, she would follow Rakesley to London, and send her condolences to Lady Artemis. In a separate note, she would invite the duke to join her for tea at her late husband’s St. James’s Square mansion. Then she would arrange herself appealingly on the chaise lounge opposite his and agree to make him the happiest man on earth.

She would be saved.

More accurately, her stables would be saved.

Rakesley—arrogant duke that he was—thought his stables the best in the land, but Celia knew hers to be. And her deceased, wastrel of a husband had nearly squandered them away.


She wouldn’t think of her deceased, wastrel of a husband.

Not today.

Not when she had two very good reasons to smile.

Celia and Eloise settled into their box seats, front row, nothing impeding the view of the turf. Though Celia had found few pleasures in her life as a duchess, a front-row box at Newmarket was one.

The weigh-in now completed, horses and riders began taking their places at the start, all arrayed in a rainbow of colorful silks. Celia leaned forward and held her fan to her forehead as a shield against the sun, searching the scrum for her colors. Pink and white livery shouldn’t be too difficult to locate, particularly when the shirt was bright pink with large and small white polka dots. She’d designed the pattern herself.

Her heart lifted in her chest. There. A flash of pink and white as Light Skirt and her jockey Ames jostled to the front of the starting line. A filly of even temperament, Light Skirt took no issue with being at the center of two dozen high-spirited Thoroughbreds. And, oh, was she a beauty with her shiny chestnut coat, white socks showing her elegant fetlocks to advantage, and braided black mane. Further, the filly’s name suited her. When she ran, she possessed a lightness of step Celia had never encountered in another horse.

Anticipation had Celia’s palms slicked with perspiration.

“By the by, Celia,” began Eloise, angling in her chair so they could’ve been mistaken for conspirators.

Celia knew that tone. Whatever Eloise was about to say, it wouldn’t touch her smile.

She was determined.

“I’ve heard a rumor about the title.”

Celia didn’t need to ask which title. Her late husband’s title, of course. Duke of Acaster. The title that would go extinct if an heir wasn’t found. She flicked a dismissive wrist. “There have been rumors about the title since Edwin exhaled his final breath.”

Eloise gave a firm shake of the head. “This rumor isn’t precisely a rumor, Celia. A line of inquiry appears to be bearing out.”

“And let me guess.” Celia couldn’t resist a tease in her voice. “You have this on the good authority of Mr. Lancaster?”

A light blush pinked Eloise’s cheeks. “As it happens, I do.”

A widow these last seven years, Eloise had developed a special, erm, friendship with Mr. Lancaster during the last three, a discreet arrangement that suited both. Further, Mr. Lancaster was a barrister in Lincoln’s Inn, and as such, he was privy to solid information and wild rumor both. This latest would prove to be the latter, of course.

“I appreciate your help, my dear.” She squeezed Eloise’s hand. Her cousin was only trying to help.

“But it’s been a year. If there were an Acaster heir, one would’ve been discovered by now.”

The courts had given it nine months before they’d been satisfied she wasn’t carrying Acaster’s heir. Then they’d discreetly expanded the search, which looked doubtful as no family had been located.

It mattered not to Celia one whit. She cared about two things in this world—the woman sitting beside her and her horses. For the ten years of her marriage, she’d poured all her affection into her horses. They’d saved her at her lowest point, and now it was her turn to save them.

She would do anything.

Even marry again.

Eloise’s seriousness didn’t relent. “I think you should be prepared for the possibility, Celia.”

Celia was saved from having to further engage on the subject, when she noticed the man with the starting gun taking his place. “Oh, look,” she said, pointing. “The race is almost underway.”

“We’ll see,” said Eloise, with a doubtful lift of an eyebrow.

False starts were a known strategy of the Ring’s blacklegs to rattle horses at the starting line.

In the two decades since the blacklegs had secured near total control of betting in horse racing—laying odds and making the books—their brazen corruption knew no bounds, from false starts to bribing jockeys to poisoning rival horses to secure their favored horse a win. In 1818, the Jockey Club attempted to rein in the power of the blacklegs by opening the Subscription Room at Tattersall’s, where bets were to be struck. But it was a mostly ineffectual attempt, for the scale of betting had ballooned well beyond the power of the Jockey Club.

On any given racing weekend, the hundreds of thousands of pounds just waiting to be plucked as if from thin air by the wiliest opportunists was too great a temptation for many to resist. When the spooking of a favored horse at the starting line could make a fortune for a blackleg overnight, the stakes couldn’t be higher for the desperate chancer.

As the horses jostled into position, Celia’s mind wandered in an unwelcome direction.

It was all this talk of Acaster.

A debauched lecher for most of his life, it only occurred to him at the young age of five-and-seventy that he could expire without a legitimate heir. He’d needed a wife.

One wasn’t difficult to find. He was a duke, after all, and Celia’s father was a wealthy merchant with a beautiful, obedient daughter and on the hunt for a title in the family.

Everyone got what they wanted.

Everyone, except Celia.

The duke had been serious in his intention to father an heir.

A clammy shudder traced through her at the remembered feel of the duke’s hands on her skin… clamped around her wrists… clamped around her throat…

She swallowed the memory down. She couldn’t think of the particulars of that life and maintain the smile on her face.

“My dear, are you alright?” asked Eloise, her gaze searching. “Do you need the ladies’ retiring room?”

Celia shook her head. “It’s only nerves.”

Her smile had slipped.

She returned it to its place.

Her lech of a husband had, at least, done one thing right: He’d left her the horses in his will. They belonged to her outright—as long as she was able to keep them, for one rather sizeable problem remained.

Acaster had left her with no money for their upkeep—only debts. A new bill arrived every day.

Even a year after his death.

How like Edwin not to think or care about the practicalities. If—when—Light Skirt won today, the thousand pounds in prize money wouldn’t take Celia very far. Every last farthing of it needed to go toward the buy-in for the Race of the Century in September, as tempting as it was to keep it and forego that race. But the Race of the Century carried a £10,000 purse, which would be enough to keep her afloat while she established the Thoroughbred stud she’d put in motion.

She simply had to keep her head above water for the next few months.

Perhaps Rakesley would agree to a quick wedding—a special license or a trip up to Scotland.

Then all her troubles would be over.

Another concerned crease formed on Eloise’s brow.

Celia’s smile had slipped—again.

She couldn’t think about marriage and not think about the marriage bed she’d been subjected to with Acaster—not if she was to proceed with her plan and marry again.

While Rakesley was all arrogant duke, he wasn’t a bad sort—as men went. He knew his duties and responsibilities and took them seriously. He would make her the only sort of husband she would be able to tolerate: One whose life wouldn’t much intersect with hers. For here was the most important consideration for marriage with him.

He didn’t gaze upon her possessively or with hot lust.

He viewed her in a dispassionate, respectful way that suited her perfectly. She intuited he wanted the same sort of marriage as she—one not tangled up in emotion.

She would do her duty and give him an heir and two spares.

And he would save her stable.

Her ears picked up a snippet of whispered conversation from a passing couple. “…and soon to be the Duchess of Rakesley, by all accounts.”


Gossip was spreading about her and Rakesley, and the feeling of safety, the feeling she’d been holding at arm’s length until he’d officially asked the question—Will you marry me?—began to take on a tangible feel within her.

The life she wanted—security… freedom—was within reach.

Eloise tapped her hand and jutted her chin. The man with the starting gun had lifted the weapon into the air.

Even as Celia’s heart thumped into an all-out gallop, her gaze caught on one horse and rider, the colors of purple and black unmistakable. Little Wicked. From the moment of her birth, she’d been proclaimed the most promising filly of her year. High expectations had followed. Lord Clifford, however, lost her in a card game to a chancer named Deverill, a man known in society for his mountains of blunt.

Celia didn’t give a toss about the gossip. But she did care what happened to Little Wicked.

“Why is Little Wicked running today?” she hissed. The filly had run in yesterday’s race, placing third and showing herself to be a contender for the rest of the racing season. “It isn’t right that she’s here. It shouldn’t be allowed.”

Eloise placed a calming hand on Celia’s knee. “The Jockey Club has trouble enough enforcing their existing rules without adding one more.”

Celia glanced around. It didn’t take a second to find Deverill, surrounded as he was by a scrum of married ladies and their husbands.

“He has a few admirers, it appears,” said Eloise.

“Oh, those lords want his mountains of blunt.” Celia was feeling ungenerous.

Eloise gave a dry laugh. “And the ladies want in his bed.”

Celia ignored that last bit.

Lord Devil was the moniker society had bestowed upon the man. With blue eyes that could pierce a soul and hair the black of a raven’s wing, he possessed a male beauty severe in its intensity.

And he had not the slightest effect on her.

What did have an effect on her was that he was running Little Wicked on two consecutive days.

“Deverill has no business owning a Thoroughbred like Little Wicked.”

“How unexpectedly snobbish of you, cousin.”

Celia shook her head, impatient. “Thoroughbreds are a touchy breed. They need to be run and worked, but they also require coddling. Just because someone has the money to keep a stable and train a Thoroughbred doesn’t mean they should. Little Wicked deserves more than to be treated like a rich man’s toy,” Celia finished with more passion than was strictly necessary.

Eloise watched her calmly. “But her future isn’t yours to decide, Celia. Besides, she certainly appears to be full of vim and vigor.”

As if to illustrate Eloise’s observation, Little Wicked gave a restless stamp of her hoof and toss of her head. A note of portent crept through Celia. Little Wicked was about to give Light Skirt a run for the money. She could feel it.

Starting line and stands alike went still and eerily quiet. The next sound would be the firing of the gun.

A sudden plume of gray smoke puffed into the air, followed the next instant by the crack of the shot.

The horses were off.

Light Skirt jumped to her usual fast start and would’ve been in the lead if it weren’t for Little Wicked beside her, living up to her promise and acclaim. Both fillies possessed blistering speed on the flat that ran alongside Devil’s Ditch, making it apparent in the first furlong that this would be a two-horse race.

Heart pounding in her throat, Celia shifted forward, her hands gripping the railing, knuckles gone white. Little Wicked showed no signs of exhaustion from yesterday’s race. In fact, she was running today like yesterday had been a warm-up amble.

By the third furlong, the horses stretched out, and Celia waited for Light Skirt to transition into her signature cadence. The filly had the rare ability to hold the length of her stride while increasing her turnover. It was this quality that made her so light on her feet.

But, today, Light Skirt was running tight in the shoulders.

Without a thought, Celia was on her feet, hands clenched into fists, her mouth silently repeating,

“Come on… come on… come on…”

A possibility occurred to her. A possibility she couldn’t face—not if she was to keep her breath and hold her nerve. But this possibility pushed through, anyway.

Light Skirt could lose.

Which meant…

Celia could lose.

All her plans gone up like a cloud of dust in the horses’ wake.

A vision flashed in her mind—of herself in London, begging the Duke of Rakesley for his hand in marriage.


It couldn’t happen.

Didn’t life owe her better than that?

Hadn’t she earned it?

Then, in the fifth furlong, a shift occurred.

Light Skirt’s shoulders relaxed, and her cadence increased. The breath caught in Celia’s throat.

Here it was—the filly’s special magic revealing itself.

By the sixth furlong, she’d nosed half a length ahead of Little Wicked. Only two furlongs to hold…
Celia’s nails dug red crescents into her palms.

Into the seventh furlong, Light Skirt extended her lead another half a length, the finish line in sight.

In an instant, Celia’s despair inverted into utter, effervescent joy. Hands clapping, she began shouting and hopping up and down as her brilliant filly crossed the finish line ahead of her adversary, who had regained some ground, but too late. If the race had been a furlong longer, it was possible Little Wicked would’ve taken the prize. That filly would be one to watch in the remaining races of the season, since she was a latecomer and those courses were longer.

But that didn’t matter now, as pure, unadulterated joy streaked through Celia. She threw her arms around Eloise, tears streaming down her face in equal parts exhilaration and relief, as she received congratulations from all around. She was certainly making a common spectacle of herself.

But it mattered not.

Light Skirt had just won the One Thousand Guineas and its £1,000 purse. She’d secured her place in the Race of the Century—and a chance at its £10,000 purse.

Her stable was safe.

For now.

Long enough for her to obtain a discreet line of credit to float her through the short term—until her wedding to Rakesley.

While it was true she would have to smile at another man for the rest of her days—another husband… another duke, no less—she wouldn’t mind smiling at the man who had saved her stables and secured her future.

This last decade had put her through the mangle, but—at last—she’d come out the other side.

How very close she was to the past never mattering again.

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