Authors: Jayne Fresina
Tags: #Historical Romance, #Victorian, #The Deverells
Raven Deverell laughs her way through life - and through men - on a dare and a jest. She's having fun, never letting anybody too close, and thumbing her nose at the strict rules of society. Why comply with standards set by the upper classes, since she's been told she will never belong there? And she wouldn't want to, anyway.
As one of those scandalous, rebellious Deverells, she does as she pleases and nobody would dare get in her way.
Until a stray wink from the back of a horse brings her mischief to the disdainful attention of Sebastian Hale.
Born to duty and a title, Hale lives his life by those proper rules, and he will not let this wayward young woman -- in a most improper pair of men's riding breeches -- set his world asunder. She might think it amusing to masquerade as a male jockey and claim victory over his horse, but this is one wicked, reckless game she won't win. As the Earl of Southerton, he is a man above reproach, a man who can make or ruin a reputation. And he doesn't like to lose.
The scandalous Miss Deverell has chosen the wrong opponent to wager against this time.
Perhaps she has finally met her match.
The Deverells, Book Three
Twisted E Publishing, LLC
The Deverells, Book Three
Copyright © 201
Edited by Marie Medina
, SMASHWORDS EDITION
Cover design by
All cover art and logo copyright © 201
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED:
This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission.
All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
All characters engaged in sexual situations are over the age of 18.
Deverell's Gentlemen's Club, St James Street, London, 1834
She traveled with the speed of a small, lithe panther, darting around chairs, through legs and under tables, laughing the entire time, and immensely pleased with herself.
But Sebastian Hale, following the mischievous creature through a forest of startled gentlemen and busy gaming tables, did not lose sight of her, because there were a few things she'd overlooked when she decided to steal his brandy and his fob watch before making off into the crowd.
Firstly, Hale, a lanky eighteen-year old, was a great deal taller than she and therefore had a better view of the room. Secondly, the emerald green ribbon in her hair had come undone and trailed behind her as she ran, like the bright tail of a shooting star, flickering and dancing in the candlelight.
Thirdly, Hale did not like to lose. This little thief had picked the wrong man to play against.
Admittedly, she'd had the advantage of surprise in the beginning. He would not usually allow a pair of thieving fingers anywhere near his fob watch, but he was so shocked to find a little girl suddenly standing beside his chair, whispering advice on how to play his hand, that he'd let down his guard. Her eyes, peering up from beneath a thick fringe of black hair, were curious and far more knowing than her years should allow.
Where the hell had she come from and who the devil was she?
Women were not permitted entry at Deverell's, the most exclusive gentlemen's club in London. And this girl— this imp in white lace and organdy— was much too young to be out anywhere without a nanny.
At first he had been amused by her solemnly expressed intent of helping him win the game, and then he looked about anxiously to see where and with whom she might belong. But she appeared to be utterly abandoned, and thoroughly unconcerned about it, as if this might be a common occurrence. Before he knew what was happening she had drained his brandy glass— an unapologetic burp proved her to be the culprit— and she held his watch in her small, clammy hands. A watch he had not given her to look at. How she came to remove it from his person without his notice was extremely troubling, and then she took off with the sly alacrity of any street pickpocket.
As he leapt up to follow her, she scampered just out of his reach and led him on this mad chase. Every chair was overturned and one of the stouter gentlemen tumbled into the table, knocking it over and all the cards with it. This disruption of his evening had happened in a matter of minutes and now the club, previously going about its usual business, was in uproar as the naughty child's progress through the room caused further havoc.
But the door to the owner's office swiftly opened and the unmistakable silhouette of True Deverell appeared in the frame, shoulders square, feet apart and knuckles resting on his hips. When he gave a sharp whistle, much like the signal a shepherd would give to his dog, everyone in the room froze at the sound.
"I've warned you before, female child," Deverell bellowed heartily above the stunned faces of the crowd, "I shall keep you in a cage, if you cannot disport yourself like a proper young chit. Now get in here or you'll not have that pony for your birthday. I've better and more thankful offspring to lavish my riches upon."
Sebastian crept up to the table under which she currently hid, and caught the frayed, trailing end of her green ribbon before she could run off again. "The miscreant lurks under here, sir," he called out.
She swore at him with the sort of words he would expect to hear only in a dockside gin shop, but her father barely batted an eyelid. Deverell strode across the room, took the ribbon and tugged her out from her hiding place. As he led her back to his office by that long band of silk, he shouted, "Thank you, gentlemen. You may proceed with your evening."
Sebastian's watch was returned to him shortly after, by a waiter who brought it on a silver salver with a folded note covered in ink blots. He assumed it was meant to be an apology.
"Tis a uggly olde washe anyway. I only tewke it tew make ye chayse me. Best Regards, Sin Serrilly and all that, R."
And beneath that, scrawled in even greater haste,
Will yew marry me. Yea or nay
Apparently her father had set her down with paper and ink, but did not concern himself overseeing the penmanship.
"That girl will be a handful and no mistake," one of the other men remarked gravely as they reset the fallen table and gathered up the spilled cards to start again. "But what can one expect from a daughter of True Deverell? Considering his beginning as a foundling stray, it's no wonder his children are mostly feral. And now, since the divorce, he barely allows them to see the mother. Can't be good for the girl, can it?"
Sebastian refolded the note and put it away with his reclaimed watch.
Later he would find that note again and wonder why he still had it. But even then he did not consign that scrap of paper to the flames of his dressing room fire.
He would read many letters in his future, but that one was the most candid confession and straightforward request he ever received from a female. And as such it made him smile, as few things did.
So he supposed that was why he kept it.
Bourne Lodge, Richmond, London
Thirteen years later
"Looks like Hale will win again. Quite a streak of good fortune he's had."
"No one can beat Bowsprit and he knows it."
"Hale paid a fortune for that thoroughbred, but the beast will earn every penny back for him. And more. Young Bourne's horse doesn't stand a chance."
The ground rumbled underfoot, and a black cloud of birds took sudden flight from the branches overhead, spilling a long, winged ink blot across the muddy field. It was a shadow that strangely seemed to hover in place, even after the birds moved on.
For anyone of a superstitious bent, it might have been an omen. But not, however, for Sebastian Rockingham Hale, who was once accused of being calm and rational to the point of tedium, and as maddeningly immoveable as a boulder against which one broke one's shovel. This description he found apt, but very droll. It even tempted a slight smile, although no one other than his gamekeeper, his head groom and a very few close friends would detect the signs of amusement on his face.
"Here they come around the bend."
Excitement ripped through Hale's chest. Quite out of sight, of course. Discreetly working beneath the surface.
Nothing else in his life could compare with the pleasure and satisfaction of watching a fine, powerful animal in perfect condition.
But not everyone could observe and enjoy in well-mannered silence. One of the men standing near, apparently overcome with excitement he could not contain, exhaled a series of short shouts, like puffs of steam from an engine. Astonished, Hale wondered why and when it had become acceptable for an otherwise sensible gentleman to abandon his emotions in public. There was no occasion he could think of when an excess of demonstrative joy might be necessary. As he'd been taught from a very early age, by a regimentally strict and rigorously punitive nanny, an English gentleman did not succumb to public displays of sentiment any more than he would scratch his filberts in the presence of the monarch.
Two powerful beasts approached, their riders bent low in the saddle, heads down, faces speckled with mud.
But as Hale's critical gaze scanned the riders, his eager pulse suddenly tripped and faltered. What the devil—?
The horses passed the railing and headed off into the distance for the final lap, tails streaking behind, and their riders crouched low.
He stared after them, the beat of his heart chasing their hooves
It couldn't be. He must be mistaken. Even that idiot Matthew Bourne wouldn't break one of the rules and risk being thrown out of the Racers' Club. Or would he? Bourne's ill-fated elder brother, Douglas, had been a drunk and a risk-taker too, and look what became of him— he went mad from syphilis and shot himself after he was caught cheating at cards. Hale knew the true story, although the Bournes covered it up, claiming their eldest son died of a fever in Paris. Young Matthew Bourne, who had bizarrely decided that he -
- was in some way to blame for "Dear Dougie's" tragic end, would go to great lengths for vengeance. And to make a fool of him.
The horses were now neck and neck as they took the far bend and came back down on the other side of the paddock.
"You've found a little competition for once, Hale, old chap," one of his friends drawled. "That chestnut of Bourne's looks to be a sprightly creature, eh? Good stride. We counted him out too soon."
The air felt much warmer now, moist, made his skin clammy. His nostrils flared as he breathed in the fertile spring air. When he swallowed he could taste the grass sap, torn up and crushed by the horses' hooves.
"Where is Bourne?" someone said.
"Further down the paddock. There." A cigar pointed.
Yes, there was the conceited young pup, standing a good few yards away from the crowd, laughing stupidly as he cheered on his horse.
Anger quivered through Hale's body, even reaching his fingertips where he thrust them down into the pockets of his greatcoat. Such was his strange, unsettled mood that he might soon expel a very ungentlemanly curse.
It wasn't the one thousand pounds resting on this race that concerned him. He wasn't drawn to racing for the money. It was the challenge of producing the fastest horse, the rush of winning and the pride of ownership. And Hale took great offence when an irresponsible, disrespectful boy like Matthew Bourne thought he could break the rules with a foolish prank.
Once again the ground rocked beneath his boots as the horses came around the curve for the last time. Inside his pockets, safely out of sight, his fingers curled so tightly into fists that the bones began to ache, as if he'd just gone six rounds in a bare knuckle fight.
Bowsprit's rider made a last minute effort, stretching the horse. It could very easily end in an accident, with the two racers jostling for the finish line, but suddenly Bourne's horse lunged forward and by some herculean effort took the race by the length of a neck and shoulder, white sweat gleaming on its skin.
The victorious owner cheered loudly, in a manner that struck Hale as distressingly continental. And most certainly aided by an excess of alcohol.
"That's a turn-up for the books, old man," one of the spectators remarked, coughing on his cigar. "Well, I never. Still, there's always next time. That young whippersnapper will get his comeuppance, eh?"
"One can only hope," Hale replied grimly. He walked up to his own horse as the rider dismounted, looking pale between the mud spatters.
"I don't know what happened, m'lord."
"Never mind, Joe. Can't win 'em all." He patted the horse's neck.
"But we should 'ave won, m'lord. Bowsprit had it for certain, until that last leg. And then it was the strangest thing..." The jockey's sentence trailed off. He scratched his chin, looking vexed and flustered. "The chestnut's rider looked over at me with eyes like...I don't know. It startled me, I reckon. Never seen a pair of eyes like that."
Hale knew exactly what the young man meant, because he too had seen those eyes. Just a passing flicker. When the wretch on the rival horse had winked at him.
No one had ever dared make such a gesture to Sebastian Hale. Never in his life.
It must have happened so quickly— might easily have been missed— yet for those seconds it seemed to Hale as if the world slowed and time hovered in place, like that shadow over the paddock.
Only too well could he imagine how those brazen eyes might have affected his rider at closer range.
"Did you get a good look at that jockey?" he asked nonchalantly, keeping his infamous composure.
"No, m'lord. He wore a scarf up over the lower half of his face, like a damned highwayman. I suppose to keep the mud off. I could only see his eyes."
The winning rider had galloped onward, not slowing the mount to a canter until they were nearly level with Bourne, then they turned, tail swishing, horse snorting, circling until they had eased the excited beast down to a trot. After a brief word with the rider, Matthew Bourne laughed, left his horse and strode toward the others. "You owe me a thousand, Hale. Shall we settle it over some very good brandy at Deverell's next time you're in town?"
Hale considered for a long moment. He looked over to where the other horse and rider now trotted in the direction of the stables. "You know we run these private races under very tight rule, do you not?" he said carefully.
"Of course. We must never do anything unless it's by your all-important rules." Then Bourne feigned surprise, hand to his chest. "Do you accuse me of something, Hale? I didn't realize you would be such a suspicious and resentful loser. But I doubt you've had much practice."
He studied that flushed, smooth, handsome face and the cunning, smug gleam in Bourne's eye. The odor of brandy was rife. "Drunk so early in the afternoon?"
"I am drunk, my dear chap,
"Enjoy it while it lasts. Before the residual effects set in. "
"What about the wager, Hale?" Bourne frowned, swaying slightly. "You owe me a thousand pounds. Or perhaps you'd like to buy the horse. I'm sure we could come to some price."
"I'd rather make an offer for the rider."
The younger man's gaze turned to flint. "The rider's not for sale."
"Really?" Hale felt his lips tempted into a semi-curve of amusement. A most irregular sensation, considering the villainy that had just taken place against him. "Everybody's for sale sooner or later. For the right price."
"Just pay up. One thousand for the winner, as we agreed."
Reaching for his fob watch, Hale made the other man wait while he flipped open the case and consulted it. The grinning skull clock face— meant to represent the work of time and the grim reaper— stared up at him with those hollow eyes. He was suddenly more cognizant than ever of time passing him by. "You will attend the Winstanleys' ball tonight in Mayfair, I suppose?"
"Indeed. I'll be there."
"I assumed so. Aren't you soon to announce your engagement to Lady Louisa Winstanley?"
Bourne blinked, a distinctly deeper pink coloring his face. He looked over his shoulder and then back again. "It's a private matter. How the devil would you know that?"
Hale said simply, "I know everything."
The young man's glee had sputtered out like a candle in a draft. "Then you know I'll be there tonight."
"Splendid. We'll settle the debt at the ball then. I'll write you a cheque from my bank tonight. If you have no objection."
"Very well. I'm only surprised that you plan to attend. Didn't think it was your sort of thing."
"I would rather have a tooth pulled. But sometimes one has to make a personal sacrifice for the greater good."
The younger fellow shot him a puzzled frown and then hastened off toward his father's stable, stumbling over every clod of grass as he went.
Hale slid his watch away, squinting thoughtfully at the departing fool. If this ruse was exposed, Bourne must know he'd be banned from the Racers' Club. Was the moment of victory over
worth that? Or did the boy do it for some other reason?
And who was this rider who thought they could wink at him and get away with it? Soon they would know differently.
Sebastian Rockingham Hale didn't lose.
Definitely not to a bloody woman.
A bloody woman in a pair of men's riding breeches.