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?
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 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.
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.
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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