The Incorrigible Mr. Lumley
Stubborn. Hard-headed. Single-minded. Those qualities are what make David Lumley a successful horse breeder. When he puts those qualities to work befriending Lady Joanna Hurst with less than noble intentions, he's tenacious in his pursuit.
Lady Joanna falls fast and hard for the handsome, witty and charming Mr. Lumley after her brother's ultimatum to find a husband by the end of the Season. He is everything she imagined a husband could be, and more. Blissfully unaware of the conflict between their fathers, she believes he'll declare his love soon. Then she overhears a conversation between Mr. Lumley and her brother, and all of Mr. Lumley's tenacity will be needed if he's to win back her heart.
Newmarket, Sussex, England
The air held a hint of excitement and promise of a fresh beginning. For David Lumley, the new year began in spring. Not with the first foal in the family stable, but with the Craven Race Meeting in Newmarket, the first official meeting of the year. This was going to be a grand year for Triton, he could feel it. Fernleigh Stud would be the name on everyone's lips again.
The crowd at the racecourse was as large as David expected. He surveyed the grounds from his position near the judging station. The social Season in London had yet to begin, so the wives of the horse owners were all in attendance at the Craven. From the way they all leaned close to each other and whispered in the coffee house, they were eager to discover the latest on dits. David was always astounded when he overheard how much went on in the homes of the ton during the winter months. His life seemed thankfully dull in comparison.
He had no desire to listen to gossip, but soon he'd be unable to escape it. He'd promised to escort his sister, Hannah, in her first London Season. In preparation over the winter, Mother had dragged him to afternoon teas and the morning calls she and Hannah made to their neighbors in the village near Bridgethorpe Manor. Dull, precisely timed events where the conversations were by rote up to the moment someone let slip she'd heard news. No matter on whom the juicy tidbit focused. All other voices in the room silenced so the speaker's slightest inflection could be heard.
It was all too much for a man to bear.
David wound through the milling people on his way to the stables. He found his groom, Peter, in the stall with Triton, just completing his work. As the boy gathered his tools, David patted the bay's shoulder. "How is he this morning?"
"Right as always," said Peter. "He's got a bit of the devil in 'im. He'll be after showing them other horses who's king."
"Just as long as he wins. I'm counting on him."
Peter put the tools into a bag and opened another, removing the carefully folded shirt made in the colors of Fernleigh Stud, the orange body with yellow sleeves. He donned the garment and the black hat that completed the uniform.
David stepped back as the youth saddled the horse and then freed the reins from the iron ring on the side of the stall. Together they led Triton out of the stables and to the examination area. Other grooms and horses milled about in preparation for the race. David glanced at the schedule. "We're entered in the third race. You'll have him warmed up?"
"Of course, sir. He'll be ready to race 'is best, never worry."
Peter's cocky grin said his boss always worried, but David didn't reprimand the lad. Peter was the best groom and rider he'd come across, with a natural knack for understanding what a horse was thinking. He could bring more out of an animal than any of the trainers they'd paid good money to, and the animals seemed calmer around him.
"You see that he does race his best," David called out with a growl. A useless effort. There was no sense trying to sound more authoritative when Peter knew who paid his wages, and showed due respect when the situation called for it.
Assured his horse was in good hands, David crossed the grounds, nodding and calling greetings to those he recognized. His brother Adam, Viscount Knightwick, should have arrived by now. As he scanned the gathering crowd, his gaze landed on the last face he wanted to see at the Spring Meeting, or any other race event.
Blast it. David's gut knotted at the sight of the man. Ducking behind a pair of gentlemen walking in the earl's direction, David darted around the corner of a building where he could eavesdrop without being noticed. He peered out into the lane. Robert Hurst, Lord Northcotte, stood with a particularly handsome young lady, and their sharp exchange reached David's ears.
The young lady folded her arms across her chest, and the tiny, pale blonde ringlets framing her face trembled with tension. "I am going to ride him. No one will know. I've trousers in the stable, and I can wear Bruce's shirt and cap. With my hair tucked up, no one will recognize me."
Northcotte jerked her arm. "You will not consider it. Do you want to risk everything I've left? I'll find a jockey and Patriot will be entered as planned. You may tell Bruce his services are no longer needed."
"I'll do no such thing! That boy needs the wages for his family, and it's not his fault he is ill. You cannot hire some stranger to ride Patriot. You know he'll never allow a strange man on his back. I must be the one to ride him or we may as well scratch him from the race."
"I'll hear no more of this, Joanna. Go find Mother and let me handle this."
Northcotte released her arm and strode off toward the stables. The young lady must be his sister, Lady Joanna. She stood for a moment and watched him go, then spun on her heel and stomped off in the opposite direction.
David smiled at her forceful steps in the dirt. She seemed much like Hannah. Stubborn, impulsive, and too daring by half. He chuckled and shook his head. Those qualities could make Hannah's search for a husband drag on for years. Even her beauty would not compensate for her strong character in the minds of many men. He'd have to make certain Mother didn't expect his services as chaperone to run beyond one Season.
Northcotte's sister had to be dicked in the knob to suggest she wear trousers and ride in the race. Northcotte had the right of it-he'd be disqualified, and laughed out of the Jockey Club books, if not actually banned from competing. If Hannah ever dared such a thing, David would have her sent back to Bridgethorpe Manor for the remainder of the racing season.
Shaking his head, he followed the pretty blonde in the direction of the paddock, where he found Knightwick leaning on the upper rail of the fence. Peter and Triton loped around the space, getting warmed up before the races began. The three-year-old horse's gait was long and even, covering the ground with no effort.
As he reached the fence, David slapped Knightwick on the shoulder. "I believe we have the winning horse this year."
"You've said as much these three years past," Knightwick replied with a teasing grin.
"But this year I'm right. Triton has the heart of a winner. He loves to be out front. Start him behind the other colts and he'll run that much faster to best them."
Knightwick shook his head. "His chest is narrow, he's willful and as likely to turn in the opposite direction as run the course. We never should have bred his dam. I'm rather surprised she let the Black Knight close enough to cover her."
"You're nit-picking. Triton is the horse we've been waiting for."
Neither brother completed the thought aloud…Triton was the horse they were counting on to save their stables after the death of Zephyr, their father's prize-winning stud, six years ago.
David absently tapped his fingers on the fence rail while observing the other animals circling before them. "Did the trip to London with Mother and Hannah pass uneventfully?"
"Yes. Hannah chattered the entire trip." Knightwick offered his brother a wry glance. "Rather convenient of you to leave a week early so you couldn't accompany them."
David grunted. "I promised Mother I'd arrive in Town in time for Hannah's first ball, and would attend as many assemblies as I can. But first she must be outfitted, presented in court and all that sort of feminine thing. I'm not going to miss a race meeting this spring, not when I'm so confident in Triton."
"I'll wager Mother said you are too much like Father in that."
Laughing, he agreed. "I ask you, what purpose do I have in London? Mother is there to chaperone. I've no wish to see which ladies are on the hunt. Nor do I care to be packed into the crowded assemblies filled with the stench of too many bodies and liberally applied perfumes. I'd much rather be in a stall filled with the more natural scent of eau de cheval."
Knightwick glanced at him from the corner of his eye. "Maybe you'll find one of those bodies belongs to a lady you wish to know better."
"Not bloody likely. You have yet to take a bride, and you're the one with the responsibilities. My only concern is this." He waved an arm at Triton. "He and Lumley's Lass will be my primary focus until the final race meeting this year."
Knightwick made a strangled noise and straightened, staring across the paddock. "What is he doing here?"
Without looking, David knew whom his brother had spotted. "I wondered the same thing. From what I overheard, it appears Northcotte has a horse entered in one of the courses today."
"Why did the Jockey Club allow him to enter?"
"What reason do they have to block him? No one charged him with anything. He can race any horse he owns, just like the rest of us."
Rubbing the back of his hand across his mouth, as if wiping away a bad taste, Knightwick said, "I don't trust him. Tell Peter to stay with Triton at all times, even sleep in the stalls. I'll go find Nick and make sure he stays with Lass."
"You can't think he'd be foolish enough to try anything after the inquiry last year."
"Someone killed Zephyr six years ago, and two of our horses turned up sick last year. I don't know who is behind it, but we can't take any chances. We must be on our guard whether Northcotte is at a race meeting or not."
Lady Joanna Hurst stood at the empty stall where she'd left her three-year-old colt, Patriot, a short while earlier. The groom's uniform was missing along with her horse. "Robert," she spat out as if it were a curse. She tossed aside the trousers she'd stolen from her brother's room at the inn. Robert had followed through on his words and found someone to ride Patriot.
What an inopportune time for him to begin following through on anything! All her work training Patriot would be for naught if Robert prevented her from riding him in the race. She was certain she could pass herself off to the officials as a young lad. Her own mother had mistaken her for a stable boy often enough when she wore trousers to work with the horses.
Mama had barred her from entering the stables for a week after the first time she found her thus, but as Mama rarely ventured down there, she didn't see Joanna return to work the next day. To train a horse properly, one must sit astride. There was no way around it. And wearing trousers was the only way to sit correctly.
None of that mattered at the moment, however. Patriot must win today. Her horse would do anything she asked of it, except be ridden by a groom he didn't know. She searched her mind for something she could do to help her horse through the change in rider at this late hour, but came up empty.
Grateful the mud from recent rains had dried, Joanna rushed off as quickly as her boot heels would allow in the rough dirt. It was too late to convince Robert to let her ride, but perhaps talking to Patriot would calm him. Patriot always listened to her.
Unlike her brother, the horse had some sense.
As luck would have it, Robert was talking to a pair of men near the paddock. She bit back an indelicate curse she'd learned from the grooms. She had to keep her temper controlled. Schooling her features into a smile suitable for the most fashionable drawing room, she strolled up and slipped her hand around her brother's arm. She spoke in a voice rich with treacle. "There you are, brother. I've been searching for you."
The look he slanted warned her against causing a disruption. She batted her lashes in response. "I'm so excited to watch our horse compete. I couldn't sit any longer. I had to come look for him."
The other two gentlemen nodded. "The thrill of the race is undeniable," one agreed.
She didn't recognize them. They appeared to be a few years beyond her brother's thirty years. The second man, a thin, dark-haired scarecrow with white side-whiskers, peered down his hawkish nose at her and lifted an imperial brow, but said nothing.
Robert patted her fingers with enough force to ring out like a slap. "A lady doesn't belong here by the paddock. You might damage those lovely kidskin boots I bought you. Mother must be wondering where you are."
He looked across the paddock toward the grandstands. Suddenly his features went slack and he cursed beneath his breath. Joanna followed his line of sight and spied two men who appeared to be watching their little group. She could make out their features, but didn't recognize them. Turning to question Robert, she was interrupted before she had the chance to speak.
Her brother took her arm roughly and nodded to his companions. "Gentlemen, I'll look for you after the event. If you will excuse me, I must make certain my mother does not want for anything. Come along, Joanna, dear."
As if she had any choice. She took two steps for each of her brother's strides and still she was being dragged. "Please slow down. Who were those men you were speaking with?"
"Business associates. No one you need know. You must at least make a pretense at behaving like a lady when we are in public, if you are ever to marry. I'll tell Mother you are to remain at her side, or you won't be allowed to attend any future race meetings."
Allowed to attend…the very words made her blood boil. Just a few years ago, Robert was her playmate, or so he let her believe. The distance in their ages meant they hadn't truly been close, with him away at school by the time she was old enough to remember. But when he was home, he'd taught her chess and various card games and made her feel important. He often rode the countryside with her and never once chastised her for riding astride.
Lately she felt more like an obligation, one he was searching to end. The pressure he put on her to marry was quite unbearable. And the restrictions he imposed on her time with their horses were her biggest concern. A life without horses was truly not to be borne.
"Robert, please let me catch my breath. Mama will assume I am ill if I appear before her flushed and breathless." She tugged again on the arm he still gripped.
His hand relaxed. "I'm sorry. But I'm only looking out for your best interests."
"My best interests would be met by having Patriot win today."
"As would mine, but I'll not allow you to ride him in the race, so this is the end of that discussion. A disqualification would be worse than a loss, going forward. Now, there is Mother in the coffee house, sitting at the window. Please humor me and stay with her until I come for you both at the end of the day. Wallis will escort you two to the grandstand when it's time for Patriot's match."
Joanna bit her tongue on all the retorts that came to mind. Of course Robert would send his groom to take them to watch the race, and not be bothered to do so himself. Just more proof she was a burden and not a pleasant companion. She entered the crowded eating establishment and made her way to the small table where Mama sat with her maid. Letting go of the last of her frustrations, Joanna smiled at them. "How are the scones? Did you save me any?"
"Of course, dear girl." Her mother's sweet, round face looked pale in the morning light streaming through the window. Her blue eyes seemed as faded as the blonde hair showing beneath the edges of the black bonnet she'd continued to wear after her year of mourning had passed. "I admit, however, I was tempted to eat these last two if you hadn't arrived soon."
Mama poured tea for Joanna and handed her the cup. When they'd left the inn that morning, Joanna told her mother she would meet her shortly after checking on Patriot. Discovering Bruce was ill, followed by her muddled attempt to replace him as rider in the race, delayed her more than an hour. Mama must have requested a fresh pot of tea, as the drink was still quite warm, and it took away the chill of the morning air.
"How is your horse this morning?" Mama didn't understand Joanna's passion, but she humored it.
"He's frisky and eager to run. But his groom isn't. I fear Patriot won't perform well with another boy on his back."
"Oh, dear. And you've put so much time in his training. But this is only the first of many races. He'll have his day."
Yes, Patriot would do well in the future, but her main concern was whether Robert would continue to let her attend race meetings, or if she must wait to hear reports of his activities. She would simply expire from worry if she couldn't watch Patriot compete. She glanced at the clock on the wall, then sighed. She still had hours to wait for the racing to begin.
Joanna contemplated her mother again. The dark circles beneath her eyes were not as prominent today. "I'm very pleased you came with me to the race meeting."
"I always enjoyed the races with your father. I'm happy to chaperone you here."
Her words sounded earnest enough, and her face didn't contradict them, but given the weeks where Mother would not even join them for meals, Joanna wondered what had brought about this gay mood. She would not press the issue, however. She would simply enjoy her mother's company for as long as she had it.